NSS: NCAFC and FACE back a boycott!

Both NCAFC and Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (FACE) back a boycott of the National Student Survey.

NUS is now committed to disrupting the National Student Survey (NSS) thanks to policy passed at National Conference. Sorana Vieru, Vice President Higher Education, has recently launched a consultation on the precise tactic to be taken: full boycott, partial boycott or sabotage. NCAFC and FACE back an outright boycott.

It’s the common sense option. Both a sabotage and partial boycott are overly complicated and overly “clever.” With a simple strategy (boycott the NSS!) and simple demands (stop the higher education reforms!) we can beat the government.

Lots of people will get behind it. Only a whole mass of people engaging in this will work. We don’t want just 70 or 100 students per institution. We want a whole movement—that means hundreds of people boycotting at each university. With a simple message and simple demands, we can do that.

It reduces engagement with the NSS—a good thing in itself! The NSS has been shown to systematically discriminate against black teachers, and it most likely discriminates against female teachers too. It’s used to bully staff, and SUs are held to ransom with it, with a large block grant being dependent on high satisfaction scores. If it comes to a boycott, then reducing engagement can only be a good thing.

Let’s issue the government an ultimatum—they stop the HE reforms, or we boycott the NSS!

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In depth: why full boycott?

Pruning junk data

Ipsos MORI already have a policy to remove junk data from the NSS. Year on year the number of students giving uniform answers on the NSS has increased. Over 5% of students now tick the same answer for every question, and more generally students are giving more similar answers for each question. This is known as junk data. Ipsos MORI, the polling company which carries out the NSS, are well aware of this problem. They have a policy to “prune” junk data – that is, they are prepared to remove uniformly-answered surveys. It seems likely they would counter a “sabotage” campaign by publicly saying they will remove junk data.

Participation and impact

Maximising participation is absolutely key. We need tens of thousands of students to carry out the action. People will find out about the action through a variety of channels – not just from their SU, or campus campaigners, but directly from the national conversation via the press, twitter, etc. Therefore the strategy needs to be dead simple. It will be harder to explain and convey a skewed-marks strategy. You can completely explain “boycott NSS” in two words, that’s all someone needs to see on a poster, a news headline, a hashtag, whatever, to know everything they need to participate. Sabotage is more complicated: you have to get someone to hear out an entire instruction. Abstaining on NSS Q1-12 is even more complicated, and will need a full conversation to explain: “We want you to boycott the first 12 questions, because they’re used in TEF, but you can fill out the others. Why? Well…”

Second, if we go with boycott it is easier for everyone to understand the impact we are asking them to make. In other words, we don’t want a strategy which tries to be too “clever.” The idea behind a boycott is easy to grasp – the survey will be useless if none of us fills it out – and the outcomes will match expectations. It is much more difficult to understand the impact of the sabotage option: “If we give them junk data it might skew the results, making them unusable, but if they don’t use the data, then it’s like it was a boycott anyway”. If Ipsos MORI respond by saying they have removed the junk data and the sabotage was ineffectual, people will be confused. We want the tactic to be incredibly simple and easy-to-grasp without thought. There’s a risk of exacerbating separation into a layer of informed activists who are pleased with playing a clever game with the enemy, and everyone else looking on passively. Boycott is more “equalising.”

Third, boycott will give us simpler numbers and much better headlines. “60% of students did not fill out the NSS” is clear, dramatic and impressive. It allows us to take those who wouldn’t have filled out the survey anyway, and encourage them to reframe what would have been an act of laziness or apathy as a political choice. A sabotage or abstention on Q1-12 would give much more complicated results: “30% of students just didn’t fill in the survey and another 30% participated in our wrecking/abstention strategy” isn’t such a powerful claim and our opposition could use it against us.

We also have no idea how Ipsos MORI will be able to spin the numbers when they excise the data. Imagine 70% of people fill out the survey: 25% wreck or abstain on Q1-12, 45% give genuine responses, and 30% just don’t fill it out at all. Ipsos MORI could spin these numbers lots of ways: “70% response rate!” or “75% did not participate in the wrecking/abstention strategy” (75% being true fill-outs plus people who didn’t bother to engage at all). If you convert those “junk data” participants to boycotters, you can’t argue with, or spin, “55% of students did not fill out the NSS”.

Fourth – and this is really important – boycott involves students engaging less with the survey. Our campaign will be met with a propaganda war from Ipsos MORI and universities. Every point at which a student engages with the NSS is a point at which they can be persuaded back. Ipsos MORI will be bombarding them with propaganda about how their opinion matters, don’t sell off your voice, etc. The survey page will probably be covered in pleas about how important it is to give real answers, how junk data is only hurting themselves, students and staff. When people log in to fill out junk data, they will have to engage with that, and at least some people – we don’t want to speculate too much – will be turned by it, give in and fill out real data at the last minute. By contrast, boycotters can cut the NSS out of their lives, ignore the material and therefore ignore the propaganda. So there is less chance of them turning back after we persuade them once.

Last of all, we need to be very clear that the boycott is a negotiating ultimatum. We are boycotting unless and until the government backs down on the reforms. We are not simply boycotting the NSS because it’s bad – even though it is – but because we are using it as a way to coerce the government. That logically means that if the reforms are withdrawn, or repealed, we stop boycotting. Like a strike – we go back to work if our demands are fulfilled. We must be clear about why they’re doing it and that we aren’t just lashing out at things we don’t like – we have a strategy. This does mean that if the government offers us a deal, there needs to be democratic process and consultation about whether we feel it’s enough to end the boycott.

We’re asking you to respond to the consultation and advocate a boycott. The consultation ends on August 17th.

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