Opinion: Back the NSS Boycott 2018!

to do boycottBy Dan Davison, NCAFC & UCU activist

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is yet another perverse step in the marketization of education. It attempts to create an artificial state of competition between institutions by ranking them according to such metrics as graduate earnings, graduate employment, and – of course – the National Student Survey (NSS). The first ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’, and ‘Bronze’ rankings under these metrics were awarded just this year. Whilst these naturally were met with celebration by many a Vice-Chancellor and plastered proudly across many a University website, let’s not pretend that those rankings actually mean anything. Let’s not pretend that we can measure the quality of teaching a student receives from a combination of (1) whether they have a high-paying job after they graduate, and (2) the responses provided on a statistically suspect survey, subject to all the unconscious biases inherent in such a means of gauging opinion. Let’s not pretend that chasing metrics in the name of customer satisfaction is an acceptable substitute for systematically improving the material conditions of workers and students on campus.

The fight against the TEF and the wider Higher Education reforms must resume in earnest. We have already seen their first devastating effects in the mass cuts to jobs at such universities as Manchester and Southampton. This is why I welcome the calls to continue and build upon the NSS Boycott. The boycott is one of the few means through which the National Union of Students (NUS) can bring leverage to the bargaining table. By effectively sabotaging one of the metrics upon which the TEF is built, we show how flimsy and void of truth those metrics really are. We in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) have long argued that the NUS should behave like a true union: one that fights boldly for the collective interests of its members without caving into class-collaborationism. Right now, the boycott is the closest thing we have to an NUS industrial action. It presents a rare opportunity to link a national strategy against the marketization of education with rank-and-file activism.

Last year, we made our first dent. As a result of the boycott, we made the NSS results unusable in at least 12 different institutions by dropping the survey response rates below 50%. Already the government is trying to outmanoeuvre us by giving the NSS results less weighting in the TEF’s metrics, yet that very move shows us how little is needed to shake the foundations of their framework. Put simply, if the 26 students’ unions who organised boycotts last year were able to throw a spanner in the works, imagine how many gears we could grind to a halt if we pushed the campaign even further! When the NUS National Conference passed its policy to boycott the NSS in 2016, it was to be until the TEF is abolished and the Higher Education reforms are withdrawn. Those demands remain every bit as vital now as they were then. Until they are met, the boycott must continue and we in NCAFC should proudly spearhead it into 2018. Across the country, our activists should be organising to pass motions in students’ unions and promote the boycott at the grassroots level.

I appreciate that the road before us is uncertain. We have seen the ascent of the right within the NUS. We have seen how little we can rely on the NUS leadership to back street-level activism. We have seen reactionary students’ unions breaking rank to ‘boycott the boycott’ in the name of localism and cosying up to senior management. Yet if we, as the standard-bearers of the left in the student movement, cannot lead by example, then who can? To those who fear that all the scabs and right-wingers obstructing us at every stage will surely secure our defeat, have we not always done what we do ‘though cowards flinch and traitors sneer’? Yes, it will be a tough fight. But by building bonds of solidarity with the countless students, education workers, and others who recognise the TEF as yet another shameless attempt to bend a public good into the warped shape of a market system, we can spread word of our cause to even further corners and form an effective force in our own right. Let these words ring into the New Year, even louder and clearer than before: ‘Boycott the NSS!’

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