Is it time to boycott the National Student Survey?

Rima Amin asks whether linking the questionnaire to the teaching excellence framework will turn undergraduates decisively against it

April 19, 2016
Protest in Ankara, Turkey

Its “NSS o’clock” – the time when universities are frantically trying to get students to fill in the National Student Survey. At the same time, students’ unions across the UK are voting on whether or not to boycott the NSS.

The proposed boycott has been supported by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, a coalition between students and workers. More than 200 student representatives have signed an open letter in support of the boycott, which will be debated at the National Union of Students’ national conference this week.

Animosity towards the NSS has been brewing among the student body for some time. For those in favour of a boycott, the NSS is the symbol of the marketisation of education and overshadows other forms of student representation. 

The NSS is becoming increasingly significant to institutions, as it is a possible metric of the proposed teaching excellence framework. The results link to the possibility of raising fees in line with the rate of inflation, meaning that institutions will be facing more and more pressure to get students to fill it in.

Campaigns supporting a boycott say that surveys create a culture of fear and argue that money spent on surveys could be better spent on student representation systems that connect students and institutions. They also argue that the arrangements set out for the TEF make education, learning and support a product. 

A report by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, published after the release of the government’s Green Paper, highlights concerns that institutions have against linking the TEF to fees. Universities say that “a financial incentive could heighten the likelihood of institutions seeking to manipulate or 'game' the TEF, rather than working meaningfully within it; and that the TEF could “reward the high performing institutions but not provide the resources necessary for others to invest in improving teaching quality”.

Along with the possibility of student and institutional political biases and strategies impacting results and potentially making them unworkable, there are questions on whether or not these metrics suitably measure teaching excellence and student support at all.

With the NSS, do positives scores really reflect student satisfaction? The number of students that fill it in is a sign of student engagement. However, even negative scores and comments are indicative of an environment in which students feel encouraged to put their thoughts forward. And what about those who don’t fill it in at all? 

The point is, student issues are often complex and need to be dealt with as such. And these metrics could simplify them to a point where they become problematic. While there is support for the principles outlined in the Green Paper, they need to be focused on separately to university income streams.

Otherwise, we may start to see institutions explore these areas with the primary concern of sustainability through fee income, and all other motivations for this work risk becoming secondary.  

Previous proposals for a national boycott have been rejected by the NUS. It will be interesting to see if the proposed link to fees has changed views.

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

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Reader's comments (1)

I can not agree more with you. K M Enayet Hossain - CEO, Total Student Care (TSC)