Students: For The Sake Of Those That Come After You, Boycott The National Student Survey

07/02/2017 17:18
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Acronyms: the bane of the student politics. Whilst often joked about by SU hacks and NUS nerds (see, I did it twice in half a sentence), it underlines a much more serious problem: the language we use often fails to engage students, yet the concepts and instruments such acronyms cloak are important. Really important.

The National Student Survey - NSS- is one such acronym, one that has unwittingly been pushed to the front of the battle for the sole of education. It sounds nice enough: a survey, asking students how they found various aspects of their university life, and then using that data to form some sort of system whereby potential students can see how well universities are doing various things. Indeed, not many people really have a problem with that- it's the most recent uses NSS is being put to that is igniting boycotts of the survey up and down the country.

NSS forms part of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF- there's another acronym for you), which is used by the government to rank institutions (ranking universities is not new, but the next bit is), which will now be dubbed 'gold' 'silver' and 'bronze' universities dependant on their score. Here's the rub: along with the Olympic-like classifications, the government is proposing that those with a higher rank be allowed to start charging even higher tuition fees.

That's right: filling out the NSS and giving your university a good score could lead to the students that come after you being charged higher fees as a result. In fact, it gets even weirder: as NSS also includes a question about the performance of your Students' Union, it leaves us in the truly bizarre situation of unions representing students well (and therefore getting a higher score on that question) potentially leading to higher tuition fees for those students. You have to hand it to the Tories: it's a masterful move on their part.

Even beyond its link to raising fees, there are aspects of NSS that are deeply concerning to those who care about the future of higher education. A lot of it asks questions that are highly subjective and actually irrelevant to the quality of an education someone receives, and both NSS questions and the other metrics the TEF uses are affected by a variety of other factors completely out of the control of the university. See here for a useful summary of the issues.

NUS and a number of SUs around the country are calling for students to boycott NSS to show the government we will not be complicit in helping raise fees. Some, like my Students' Union officer team, believe that such an approach is unhelpful, and unlikely to change anything...

Yet boycotting is a logic that works. Boycotting has been shown to be a powerful tool both in helping to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa and in its growing role in challenging climate change through socially stigmatising fossil fuels. It's a political tool that has piled pressure on numerous corporations to ensure better workers conditions and pay, and environmental awareness too. Of course, the stakes are not as high as in either of those examples but that's the point: if boycotting can play a role in such huge battles, it can certainly help in challenging the Tories' machinations for higher education.

No student leader (at least openly) argues that fee rises are a good thing, they just differ in their commitment to stopping them. Some suggest we need to critically engage with NSS- of course we do, but not backing up our stance with any sort of action is futile- we need to have an ace in our hand and mass boycotting gives us that. Some argue they won't boycott because they want to have the useful data that the NSS gives us, both to improve things on campus and to showcase to prospective students- fine, we'll do our own surveys until the government changes track on TEF. Others still worry that boycotting will mean the university is left out of the rankings, to its detriment. Your universities rank will be secure for another two years- the rankings work on previous years scores, so a boycott this year will not immediately exclude you from the rankings, but it will send out a powerful message to your senior management and the government and will socially stigmatise the uses of NSS (also, if enough students boycotted for long enough, there wouldn't be a rankings system to fall out of).

The arguments against boycotting are based on a logic that is mindnumbingly inconsistent: we oppose tuition fee rises, but will do nothing to stop them rising. We disagree with the uses NSS is being put to and will ask you to stop, but will do nothing if you don't. It is a stance born out of a shallow and timid interpretation of what student unionism is about, one that conforms to the apolitical incarnation proposed by university senior managements and government ministers and concedes key battlegrounds before they've even been fought.

A friend of mine, in giving a speech to his student council, as so many other student councils debate this issue up and down the country, asked of those assembled a question all of those who value education need to ask themselves: 'Where do we draw the line?' This is but the latest incarnation of a larger ploy to force education to succumb to the ravages of the market, one that has tripled our fees, removed grants and bursaries and has retroactively changed the terms of our loans. This is a significant step towards the government's end game of a 'free' market system within our education sector, where profit, not learning or the people involved in it, is the priority, the governing principle. If this vision worries us, we need to start doing something to stop it.

This is a small battle in a huge conflict. It is a conflict between a state that provides for, nurtures and empowers it citizens, and a free-market, free-for-all that leaves all but a few worse off, that erodes notions like collective effort and genuine altruism and replaces them with individual greed and cut-throat competition. To challenge such a pessimistic and disempowering view of human nature will require a million acts of resistance from all of us caught in such a system: for the sake of those that come after you, start by boycotting the NSS.