Destabilising the teaching excellence framework

Rima Amin considers the challenges for students’ union officers in the light of the NUS vote to boycott the National Student Survey

April 21, 2016
Source: iStock

Students’ unions across the UK have voted to boycott the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey.

The proposal was strongly debated at this week’s conference of the National Union of Students (NUS) in Brighton. This is not the first time that an NSS boycott has been proposed. Almost every year, a debate about starting a boycott has taken place, but each time until now students voted against. So what has changed this year? And what will the boycott mean on university campuses?

In previous years, debates focused on whether or not the student survey was an adequate tool to measure student satisfaction. This year, since the release of the government’s Green Paper on higher education, the NSS debate has become more. It is symbolic of a notion that “education is a product to be sold” and therefore a strategic target of higher education reforms.

One student argued that boycotts and direct action should be used only when all other means have been exhausted and, having responded to consultations on the Green Paper, the student movement has reached the point where escalation is necessary.

For some, however, the NSS provides a way for them to connect with their university’s management and work collaboratively. It can be a helpful way of assessing feedback for leavers, and the result can make the case for increased funding – “good results can equal power for students’ unions”.

Many unions rely on this relationship and income for the work they do. In the same vein, universities rely on the relationship they have with student representatives to highlight issues so that they can deliver the right improvements and investments. Jeopardising that relationship is a risk.

It was also said that the boycott cannot fix issues with the government’s proposals but only harm institutions that are already suffering. 

The higher education reforms have been described as shaking up the sector. The new NUS policy suggests that students from autumn 2016 will work collectively with trade unions to create campaigns to encourage students not to fill in the spring 2017 surveys. They hope that this, alongside other lobbying tactics, will be enough to destabilise and delegitimise the teaching excellence framework (TEF). While the NSS boycott was debated, the movement was united in opposing the link between tuition fees and teaching excellence.

This is one of the most tactical strategies that the student movement has adopted in recent years. The test will be putting it into practice. Because the arguments on both sides were strong and the votes were close, it will be interesting to see how many unions put it into practice. 

If in June the government refuses to withdraw the proposed reforms, students’ union officers can then decide whether or not to mobilise students on campus to boycott the NSS. It will be a difficult decision. Officers need to be clear about whether the action is truly collective across the UK – in which case the boycott would be a sectoral issue and not a local issue causing damage to their universities. Along with reputational damage, their universities may fail in the TEF and their income streams decrease, meaning even less support for students.

If it’s not sector-wide, a boycott could have harsh repercussions for their organisations, universities and students. Launching campaigns on campuses against the NSS will require tools, energy and time – officers will have to decide how much investment to make in them along with their other priority campaigns.

If students’ unions work as a collective for the boycott, it could have a dramatic impact on the sector. The newly elected NUS leadership will need to work to suggest alternatives to the governments’ proposals and unite the movement.

Universities most at risk of a boycott are those that have a weak dialogue with their union officers and those that do not have a culture of change embedded at all levels of their structures.

What both universities and unions seriously need to consider is the pressure placed on final-year students. At a crucial point during their studies, they may be faced with two fierce campaigns – which, let’s face it, will be funded by the fees that they paid. Boycott or not, universities and unions need to reflect on their actions, work together and support those students.

Rima Amin is registry officer at Birkbeck, University of London and a freelance writer.

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