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Our Survey Says: Students Will Not Let Our Feedback Be Used Against Us

10/08/2017 16:54

The release of Wednesday's National Students Survey (NSS) was supposed to be a triumphant one for the government. Their plan was simple: this year's results would be used as a metric in their Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which would provide implicit consent for their plans to raise fees from £9,000 to over £10,000 by 2020.

No doubt, policy-makers believed that transforming a seemingly harmless satisfaction survey into a tool for the market was a masterstroke. However, this week's results and the absence of some universities have called the credibility of TEF into question.

My organisation, the National Union of Students (NUS), through hundreds of students' unions, represents the majority of Higher Education students in the UK. Our members made it clear to us that they found the link between a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and a rise in tuition fees to be simply unacceptable: threatening to create a tiered system of Higher Education, in which universities which were ranked higher for their teaching quality would be able to charge higher fees from 2020. This could mean that only students from wealthy backgrounds can aspire to elite institutions such as Oxbridge, and those from backgrounds like mine risk being pushed out altogether. If that's not enough, most of us knew that the TEF could never act as an effective measure of teaching quality, and was more likely to lead to a decline in quality - as institutions seek the holy grail of satisfaction at the expense of robust partnerships and innovative teaching.

Results released this week have shown just how unreliable this data is as a measure of teaching quality. A number of institutions have now questioned the viability of the government's model, with one going as far as to suggest that the TEF has lost all credibility.

The results have also served as a significant reminder that students continue to be opposed to soaring tuition fees, and will do anything within their power to challenge them. Personally, I have been heartened to see how many students have demonstrated that opposition in so many different ways. If there is a lesson to be learnt from these results and the recent general election, it is that tuition fees is an issue that we really do care about - and that we are willing to back up with action, not just words. Government and politicians need to heed that message.

The fallout from these results is very much the government's responsibility. After all, you reap what you sow.

Acknowledging the widespread concerns, the government has already promised an independent review of the TEF. This is a welcome development, and NUS will be contributing to that process. However, I believe just to tinker with the TEF is not enough. It is clear there is no mandate for the current direction of Higher Education policy: spiralling fees, an increase in private providers, and introducing an American-style, marketplace for institutions. Yet the government appears to be stubbornly taking us down this path, despite the fact almost nobody involved wants to be on it.

There is, of course, legitimate need to improve both the quality of teaching and the overall student experience, and I'm proud of the work that students' unions do in this regard. It is disappointing that students have been forced to choose between meaningful feedback and the impact of the TEF. But these problems will not be solved by the kind of market solutions that the government appears ideologically wedded to.

The evidence is now overwhelming: there is something deeply wrong with the funding model for our Higher Education system. The recent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report showed that it doesn't work for students, it doesn't work for institutions, and it doesn't work for the taxpayer. A government minster has even broken ranks to claim that there may need to be a review, and former Education Minister Lord Adonis has gone on record to claim that fees have now gone "totally out of hand".

Now is the time to accept that the current student funding model is broken. That is why NUS will be campaigning for a comprehensive review of the student funding system. We need to return to the principles of what our education should be for: something that benefits, and should be open to, all of us.

I sincerely hope that the government will choose to face up to reality and admit that it is wrong. They cannot choose to ignore students any longer. I hope that they will instead engage with us, so that, together, we can build a fairer, more accessible model for education funding - one that can genuinely deliver the kind of teaching quality and overall experience that our students really deserve.

Shakira Martin is the president of the National Union of Students (NUS)

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