Starting this week, if you’re a final year undergraduate student, the University is going to start asking you to fill in the National Student Survey (NSS). We want you to be informed about what the NSS is, and why some students are still choosing to boycott it.
What is the NSS?
The National Student Survey (NSS) is a market survey for undergraduate finalists (usually third year students) at universities in the UK to fill in to give feedback on their course and experience at university.
Last year, students at Sussex voted in a referendum to support the National Union of Students’ (NUS) boycott of the NSS for the 2017 survey. We were one of 25 unions across the country who officially endorsed the boycott.
The NSS is one of the metrics used by the government in its Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). The Students’ Union doesn’t think that the NSS, or the other metrics used in the TEF, accurately measure ‘teaching excellence'.
Why did the Students’ Union encourage students to boycott the survey last year?
Last year, the UK government planned to increase tuition fees, partially by using data from the National Student Survey to justify the increase. This was part of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), a government initiative which claims to differentiate between higher and poorer quality universities using a ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ ranking system.
The government proposed that universities with ‘gold’ or ‘silver’ rankings should be able to charge more for fees - resulting in students choosing between quality and price. The Students’ Union believes that the metrics used to measure ‘teaching excellence’ in TEF don’t actually measure excellent teaching or a students’ experience of university, and that they shouldn’t be used to justify increasing the cost of a degree.
Sussex students voted for the Students’ Union to campaign for students here to boycott the survey.
The aim of the campaign to boycott the NSS was to sever the link between the TEF and tuition fee increases. Students intended to send a message to the government that students will not be complicit in raising tuition fees. The boycott aimed to damage the reputation of the TEF (not of individual universities), and the idea that TEF is in the interests of students.
The Students’ Union believes that the TEF doesn’t actually measure teaching quality, and the use of NSS responses in the TEF encourages universities to make changes only when improvements will be reflected in the NSS. Relying so heavily on this measure encourages universities not to respond to feedback from students that won’t improve their NSS results.
Last year’s full-time officer team answered some of students’ frequently asked questions about the NSS boycott.
What did last year’s boycott achieve?
The campaign achieved its overall aim to sever the link between the TEF and tuition fees. Following last year’s boycott, the House of Lords defeated the government’s proposed linked between the Teaching Excellence Framework and tuition fees. This means that the Higher Education Reform Act approved last year does not legislate a link between TEF results and tuition fees. In other words, ‘gold’ or ‘silver’ universities cannot charge higher fees than a university ranked as ‘bronze’ by the TEF. However, this is thought to be only a postponement of the plans to introduce differentiated fees.
The National Union of Students calculated that around 16,000 students across the country boycotted the survey last year.
Across all boycotting institutions, the NSS fill out rate was down by an average of 22.37%. In total, 12 universities failed to reach the 50% threshold, making their data invalid, 8 of which were Russell Group (considered by some to be prestigious universities) universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.
12 unions’ boycotts were successful enough that the NSS results were invalidated due to low response rates and didn’t count towards the TEF.
At Sussex, the NSS had a 58% completion rate, 24% down on the previous year but not below the 50% threshold to invalidate the institution’s data.
What’s happening this year? Why are some people still boycotting the NSS?
The 2016 National Union of Students’ National Conference passed a policy to boycott the NSS until the TEF is scrapped and the HE reforms are withdrawn, so some unions are continuing their boycotts this year too. However, no students this year have put forward a referendum question for the Union to promote the boycott.
Nonetheless, the Union’s Executive Committee have decided that our retail outlets (such as Falmer Bar, East Slope Bar and the Union Shop) will not be participating in any of the University’s incentives, such as food vouchers, should they be offered. We will not be helping the University promote the survey to students through our website, social media or other communications channels.
There will most likely be student groups or individuals at Sussex also choosing not to fill in the survey and encouraging other students to do the same. We will provide support to student groups who wish to continue the boycott this year.
Other unions have argued there is a need to boycott again this year as the link between TEF ratings and tuition fees has only been postponed. Tuition fees have been frozen at £9,250 a year only until 2018/19. It is likely that the government’s new super regulator of Higher Education, the Office for Students, will soon make entry into the TEF compulsory for universities.
Additionally, the government have also halved the value of the NSS within TEF measures, further reducing the already inadequate measure of student voice. The government’s efforts to limit the effects of the boycott, by halving the weight of NSS as a metric and using data from previous years in institutions where response rates fall below 50%, are meant to discourage students from boycotting the survey.
Where else can you give feedback to the University other than through the NSS?
The government and the University should not be using your feedback as a tool to raise tuition fees. There are other ways in which you can give your feedback and make sure staff within the University know what you think.
What can you do to speak out against the TEF and changes to Higher Education?
Although the Union is not running a campaign this year, individuals can choose to boycott the NSS by not filling in the survey, or withdrawing your response if you have already filled it in by emailing email@example.com including your name and University. You can also opt out of all communications about the NSS.
Come along to meetings for the Degrees not Fees campaign, which is working to fight against all areas of the marketisation of your education.
Run to be a Students’ Union elected officer to be a part of building strong student feedback mechanisms at Sussex and to represent students’ interests to the government and the University. Nominate yourself to become a full-time or part-time elected officer before 9am on Monday 26th February.