The NUS’ survey boycott is rash and destructive – it should reconsider or risk betraying its members

The Telegraph, 23rd January 2016.

It’s around this time every year when final-year students at British universities are sent a survey to fill in, which measures ‘student satisfaction’ with their education at the end of their degrees. The survey data, which is collected independently by Ipsos Mori, feeds into a number of university rankings, alongside other information such as the cost of courses, graduate employment opportunities and the student-to-staff ratio.

This year, the NUS is running a campaign to encourage students not to fill in their forms, as part of its protest against the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which will offer some universities the opportunity to raise their tuition fees. The TEF will use the results of the National Student Survey (NSS) as part of an aggregate rating it will give to universities – either gold, silver or bronze – the better universities will be allowed to charge more.

Understandably, students across the UK are unhappy that their fees might be about to get a lot more expensive, and the NUS’ boycott of the NSS is part of a wider programme of protest that opposes the TEF and the fee increases it entails. Their argument is that by disrupting the metric that the Government are using to decide on fee increases, the process will be frustrated and delayed – giving students more time to stamp their feet and wave their flags.

The NUS have also said that they don’t think student satisfaction statistics accurately represent teaching quality anyway, meaning the TEF’s rankings will be skewed by survey data. In response to student ire, universities have emailed finalists encouraging them to take the survey and incentivising them with university merchandise, prize draws and other goodies.

So far, so boring. It’s difficult to imagine a student debate, banal as they often are, revolving around something more seemingly trivial than an internet survey. But it’s caused a fair deal of controversy on campuses, with the Free Education movement and student unions spearheading the campaign against the NSS, and student newspapers alight with indignation that their answers to the survey might be used against them.

Yet laudable as their cause might be – and we should be clear, opposing fee increases is an obvious and natural position for the NUS to take – it’s less obvious exactly how this protest will either make a difference to the operation of the TEF or, indeed, make the situation for students better. Restricting information on the state of teaching or student satisfaction only makes the market murkier for future students and opens the door to us being ripped off.

To start with, it ought to be obvious that the TEF will go ahead eventually, regardless of the validity of NSS statistics. The Government has committed to fee rises in universities that offer higher standards of education, and the specific character of TEF assessment is perhaps the least ideologically contentious part of their policy.

Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, wants a freer market in university fees, and the TEF is the way he’s going to implement it. Given that fee rises are on the cards – and they start from next year – students and the NUS interests lie in them being raised in the fairest way possible.

Ipsos Mori’s threshold on the validity of the survey data is 50 percent of student responses, meaning universities that can’t offer a large enough pool of answers won’t be ranked at all. But half of students is a pretty low bar, and it’s easy to see how the data collectors could meet that target and still be informing the Government poorly.

Courses that have very low numbers of students – specialist subjects for which more information is always appreciated by potential applicants – run the risk of having no respondents to the survey at all and instead being lumped in with the prevailing view of students in larger departments. By encouraging their members to boycott the survey, the NUS restricts individual students’ voices by preventing them from having a say in whether fees will rise in their institution.

Leaving the decision on a university’s classification down to less student-focussed metrics such as graduate employment statistics means that universities with strong ‘brands’ (such as Oxbridge and the Russell Group) will end up paying more regardless of whether the teaching is really better.

The National Student Survey has other uses, too. It’s been around a lot longer than Jo Johnson or the current Government, and it was established for a reason – to provide universities with an incentive to satisfy students in the first place, in order to bump up league table positions with the results. The NSS is a way that students can hold their universities to account, by naming and shaming the worst in nationally-recognised statistics. It is precisely because the NSS can be used to compare universities that the NUS ought to support it: it’s a key way of ensuring that bad teaching hits universities where it hurts – in the wallet.

The NUS’ response to these arguments is to claim that universities conduct internal reviews of their teaching performance anyway, and that the only reason they use the NSS is to hike up fees. But the national survey is unique because it functions comparatively, and carries the hallmark of an independent auditor, making it much more useful for people choosing which university to go to. The boycott – which NUS bigwigs are keen to stress will go on for several years – will only skew the decision-making of anxious sixth-formers who want to know what their higher education experience will be like.

University fayres and open days are already over-saturated with glossy brochures, cheesy videos and free pens that it can be hard to know exactly what a university will truly offer, and the satisfaction of former students is one of the only honest measures of comparison. Sabotaging the survey only muddies the water and allows content-light, PR-heavy universities to disguise sub-par teaching.
A NSS boycott is exactly the sort of poorly thought-out protest that gives student politics a bad name. Rather than vandalising one part of the TEF’s machinery, students would be better to focus on a principled case against fee rises, that makes the debate clearer for future students, rather than more obscure. Petulant boycotts and grandstanding are only likely to close off the opportunity for dialogue between the NUS and the Government, making student voices even smaller and the potential to squeeze money out of students greater.

The way to stop fee rises isn’t to disguise how bad university teaching is, it’s to make clear that people who have a shot at a top university place shouldn’t be punished financially for their ability. Knee-jerk boycotts are a blunt tool for that job – the NUS should abandon its campaign.

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