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An NSS 'boycott or sabotage' is a terrible idea

Emily Horsfall, the Union Development and Democracy Officer at Keele Student Union, writes for us on why her SU is supporting the national ballot to risk assess action around the National Student Survey and why a 'boycott or sabotage' of it is a terrible idea  

Over the summer the National Union of Students consulted Students’ Unions on its approach to the National Student Survey in 2017 - “boycott or sabotage”, following a vote of National Conference. Since then, SUs, concerned about the impacts of such an approach, have called a national ballot of all unions in favour of doing a risk assessment before any boycott action is undertaken. This means that every SU now has a direct say on whether some more work around the risks of such an approach should be undertaken.

Here at Keele we’re supporting the call for a national ballot. We believe that not enough consideration has been given to the potential negative impacts of boycotting the National Student Survey and that not enough work has been done to look at the real impacts in any detail.

It’s partly because of those impacts that in my view a “boycott or sabotage” of the NSS is a terrible idea, in any case. The people leading on the consultation over the summer seemed to think that boycotting or sabotaging the NSS was a great idea that would help students. But to me there seem to be a lot of problems with that approach.

The first reason is practical, and relates to timing. NUS’ suggestion is that students boycott or sabotage (in part or full) NSS 2017 to disrupt the Higher Education reforms - but on the timetables published by HEFCE, that will only impact on Year Three of the Teaching Excellence Framework. If we want to make meaningful change to the proposals, we should be fully focussed on lobbying MPs and the parliamentary process with regards to the HE Bill now, not planning a strategy to find a partial padlock for the stable door long after the horse has bolted.

The second is also practical, and relates to SUs. The NSS is a rich source of data on students’ satisfaction with their SU and by highlighting demographics or departments where scores are lower, has in the past helped SUs to dramatically improve their offering to their members. More importantly, underfunded SUs up and down the country - especially small and specialist ones - have successfully argued that improvements to their grant will make an impact on their NSS score. HEFCE’s proposed refocusing of the NSS on students’ academic experience will also help, by ensuring that unions’ education and representative function gets the recognition, focus and funding that students deserve. A national boycott will demonstrate a student movement that is not on the side of smaller institutions, but one that prioritises the stance of larger, more traditional institutions over the funding required by more unique higher education providers to effectively represent their students. It’s therefore no surprise that so many SUs seem opposed to this approach.

But the most important reason relates to students and power. The data that the NSS generates at both institutional and departmental level is a hugely important tool in a representative’s arsenal when arguing for change. In my own institution the survey helped us learn the value of stimulating module choices, and approachable and enthusiastic lecturers that are willing to go out of their way to help. It made us aware of, and therefore able to resolve, issues to do with the availability of resources and directed us towards having one of the best libraries in the country. In big universities it’s meant departments that were letting down students have got funding boosts to be better. It’s meant that universities not so good at academic support have put extra money into supporting students. And it’s meant big improvements for lots of courses and lots of students where things like “organisation and management” matter to students most, like nursing and teaching courses. Almost every university in the country has stories of student reps doing their job and making positive change for students by using data.

Some would say that surveys of this sort pit students against academics, but this is avoidable. At Keele, where coursework turnaround times were shown to be important via NSS, course reps have sat down with academics to make sure we had an agreed approach focussed on improvement and support. And of course we should reject using NSS in bogus league tables or as a justification to raise fees - whilst the data can be really useful, it isn’t perfect and should never be used as a way of working out how much a student should have to pay or how much a course should be funded by.

Effective change needs collaboration, and in the bigger picture it is the High Education Bill that is giving students a worse deal, not the NSS; we should be united as universities, unions and students in challenging the legislation, rather than fighting a relatively small performance indicator which has a valuable effect of our union’s funding. Collective action through NUS is really important, but we should only take it where it is in students interests. In this case we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot and doing so too late to have a real impact. NUS should listen to SUs and rethink its approach.

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Emily Horsfall is the Union Development and Democracy Officer at Keele Student Union

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