Boycott the NSS: Winning the Arguments

boycott the nss to stop the HE reforms

This is a toolkit for SU officers and student activists who are currently running or thinking about running NSS boycott campaigns. Hopefully, it will help you win the arguments on your campus. Please share it widely and get in touch in NCAFC if you have any other questions!

Some links

Why boycott?

The NSS is one of the key metrics used in the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), a scheme of ranking universities Gold, Silver or Bronze according to extremely flawed criteria. The TEF is central to a set of recent reforms designed to turn universities into businesses and students into consumers, putting profit before education. It is also linked to fee increases: the idea behind the framework was that the top scoring universities would be allowed to become more expensive than those with lower scores. In 2016, NUS passed policy to boycott the survey until the recent higher education reforms are withdrawn.

But hasn’t the government promised to freeze tuition fees?

In short, the Tories’ policy on higher education is currently a complete mess. Last October, Theresa May’s announcement that tuition fees would be frozen at £9,250 and not go up with inflation took many people by surprise. This included the education secretary and the universities minister, who were not consulted over the idea. May’s speech was followed by speculation across the sector. Is the freeze for one year or more? What does this mean for the TEF? None of this was ever clarified. May also vaguely mentioned that the Tories were working on a review of HE funding, whatever that means. In the summer, the idea was also floated that low-scoring universities could be forced to cut fees (without replacing the income with public funding), which would mean even more campus cuts and even more underperforming institutions losing resources. There has been no guarantee that fees will stay frozen or be delinked from the TEF. There’s clearly an appetite amongst government figures to introduce differential fees and the TEF is a tool which will allow them to do so. Let’s not trust them.

It’s also important to remember that the NSS boycott is about much more than just fees. It is about resisting marketisation in higher education. Even if fees don’t go up, the TEF and marketisation will have a harmful effect on students, staff, and education.

What’s wrong with marketisation?

Marketisation isn’t just an abstract concept and a buzzword thrown around by student lefties. It has real-life consequences. When universities are forced to compete with one another for income and places in nonsensical league tables, they save money on staff and student services, and cut courses that don’t bring in enough cash. They invest in marketing and spend millions on shiny buildings that look good in a prospectus, but don’t actually improve education.

The TEF is already leading to job cuts and course closures, as universities jump through hoops to score highly in the metrics without regard for students or workers. To give just one example, the University of Manchester cited changes in HE policy when they announced cuts to hundreds of staff.

We need to fight back or your tutors could be next.

Hasn’t the NSS been removed as a TEF metric?

No. Some changes to the TEF have indeed been introduced as a result of the boycott: the weighting of NSS has been halved and institutions affected by the campaign are allowed to participate in the TEF without NSS data, if they can prove that students took part in the boycott. However, the NSS is still a TEF metric and an important tool in the Tory marketisation agenda. The rhetoric of “student feedback” and “student choice” was used to legitimise the implementation of these reforms in the first place. The more students withdraw their feedback, the stronger our voice against them.

The recent changes to the TEF were only introduced to put students off boycotting. They show that the government is scared and that the boycott is working.

Will boycotting the NSS negatively affect my SU?

Universities use all kinds of dodgy tactics to stop unions from boycotting the NSS, from intimidating officers to threatening to cut funding. However, as far as we know, none of the unions that took part in last year’s boycott were actually penalised. If management threatens your SU with cuts, the best thing to do is go public about it. The university has no interest in cutting funding that is spent on your baking society or rugby club – can you imagine how many people that would piss off if they found out?

Sometimes every SU will have to make decisions the university doesn’t like – this is the whole point of unions being independent, rather than just another department of the university. Universities trying to regulate what SUs can and cannot campaign on is a free speech issue, and NUS NEC passed policy to defend by any means necessary SUs’ right to boycott.

Some officers are worried that taking part in the boycott will damage their relationship with the university. However, it is naive to think that university management will do anything that benefits students just because they are personally friendly with a 20-year-old who won a sabb election. Moreover, if a sabbatical officer drops a campaign that is in the interest of students just to preserve their “good relationship” with the university, then they are not doing their job well and need to be held to account.

Will boycotting the NSS negatively impact my course/institution?

No. Both NUS and the academic staff union UCU have policy to support the boycott. (Your lecturers are most likely asking you to fill in the NSS not because they care about the survey, but because the university is making them promote it.) The boycott is a national campaign of which both the university and the government are aware. Low response rates will not be used against individual institutions.

Some courses, like this one, have released public statements and contacted the university to tell them they are boycotting the NSS, and that low response rates should not be used against staff. Do the same.

However, what almost certainly will negatively affect your institution is the TEF. If it scores Gold, then it will become more elitist and possibly more expensive. If it scores Bronze, then it will risk losing its reputation and funding, and having to make cuts. It’s a lose-lose situation, so maybe it’s better just not to fill out that bloody survey.

But i want to give feedback!

There are many ways to give feedback on your course. You can use the course rep system and unit evaluations, email your tutor or department directly, and get involved in your students’ union to launch campaigns that are more likely to achieve meaningful change. Most students get constantly bombarded by surveys from their university – do you really want to fill out yet another one?

The NSS reduces your “feedback” to a simplistic 1-5 scale, which provides no meaningful information to universities. Many in the sector acknowledge that NSS scores are basically junk data: even the Royal Statistical Society has spoken out against the survey’s fundamental flaws. What’s more, studies have shown that, due to unconscious bias, courses with women and BME academics tend to get lower scores. This is especially worrying because NSS results are often used to victimise staff.

Do boycotts work?

This is not an individualistic consumer boycott. It is a collective action endorsed by the National Union of Students and a number of students’ unions across the country. In many ways, it is more like a strike. Universities rely on the NSS as part of the machinery driving their profit-making agenda and we as students power the NSS. If we stop filling in the NSS, then the machinery grinds to a halt and their plans are disrupted.

The boycott itself is not enough to stop and overturn the government’s reforms. This is why NCAFC and activists who work with us have been organising local and national demonstrations. Likewise, we have held discussions and rallies on campuses, written articles in the press, and influenced the debate on higher education policy in a number of other ways. However, the NSS is the only metric in the TEF over which we have direct control and disrupting it gives us leverage.

Last year, the boycott engaged tens of thousands of students. It was probably the most widely reported NUS campaign in the media and was mentioned during Parliamentary debates. It led to the government having to announce a fee freeze, hoping it would put us off boycotting and campaigning. It hasn’t.

Time and time again, history has shown that collective action works. However, if you think your actions won’t change anything, why would filling in the NSS do anything for you? You are only asked *not* to do something. Spend those 20-odd minutes of your life doing anything else: make yourself a cup of tea, paint your nails, call your mum. Don’t spend them providing free labour to the Tories to drive their marketisation agenda.

 

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!’

Higher education reform bill passes: we’ll fight to repeal it

Hard-won concessions have blunted and delayed some parts of the ruinous reforms, but they’re not enough. Now we fight to reverse it and win a democratic National Education Service.

Graffiti reading "What Parliament does the streets can undo"Parliament has rushed through the Conservatives’ Higher Education and Research Bill – the legislative vehicle for their ruinous agenda of fee-raising, university-privatising reforms – in advance of the snap General Election. But that doesn’t mean the issue is closed – we will keep campaigning until they’re reversed!

The battle so far

Over the past eighteen months, we’ve fought a major battle against the reforms. We have argued the case against the misleadingly named Teaching “Excellence” Framework (TEF), presented our alternative vision of a free education system governed by democracy not the chaos of the market, and through protest and direct action – most notably the boycott of the National Student Survey, which closed for 2017 last weekend – we’ve generated pressure that has extracted concrete concessions from the government. Despite attempts by some student union bureaucrats to wreck the union’s democratically-agreed strategy, the NSS boycott was taken up in large numbers on many campuses, and despite substantial spending by many universities to cajole and bribe(!) students into giving them good marks, participation at a number of institutions is expected to come out below the crucial 50% threshold that makes the data unusable.

The goal of the NSS boycott is leverage. By disrupting a mechanism that is crucial to both the future implementation of the TEF, and the current management of the HE market through league tables and disciplining workers, departments and institutions, we gain power. Instead of coming to the negotiating table empty-handed, hoping (as some student union bureaucrats naively seem to do) to convince an implacably opposed and powerful enemy with a few nice words, we say this to the government and university managers: until our demands are heard and satisfied, you will not be permitted to continue with business as usual.

And our political strategy, including the boycott and many other activities, has indeed begun to win concessions. Many amendments were passed in the House of Lords, and though the Commons reversed many of them, we retained a number, including a tightening of regulations on new private universities, and a delay in the link between the TEF and tuition fees until 2020.

What Parliament does, the streets can undo

But these compromises are not enough. Fees are still set to rise (if only with inflation), the TEF is still coming, and measures to ease and accelerate privatisation will be put into place.

However, the story is not over. Everything the government does, we have the power to resist and reverse. History is littered with failed right-wing initiatives, passed but then withdrawn in the face of protest, direct action and industrial action. Famously, Thatcher’s poll tax was scrapped after enormous numbers refused to pay it and marched in militant demonstrations across the country, making it impossible to implement.

We can and will reverse the higher education reforms by continuing and stepping up our campaign. The NSS boycott begun this year must – as the vote at NUS conference last year mandated – continue until the reforms are dead. To make the 2018 boycott bigger, we should be preparing now, in particular assessing our local campaigns to learn from what worked well, and convincing and signing-up next year’s boycotters as far in advance as possible.

We also need protest and direct action, locally and nationally. Actions should be part of a coherent drive to add to the pressure, win hearts and minds to join the campaign, mobilise and organise activists, put the issue on the public agenda, and issue a show of force to our institutions and the government. We need discussions with education workers, whose trade unions supported our boycott enthusiastically, to see how we can cooperate and how their industrial muscle might be brought to bear on the issue.

And our movement and NUS need to organise all this under the banner of an unequivocal political demand. No fudging and no tinkering round the edges – let’s be crystal clear that we won’t settle for less than the complete reversal of the reforms.

Vision

The campaign also needs to offer a convincing, concrete alternative that can inspire and win people to the cause. We’re not simply asking for the old status quo back and we shouldn’t pretend it was good enough. Instead we want to revolutionise education and build a democratically-run, free-to-access, cradle-to-grave National Education Service, open to everyone and serving people not profit. And we will fund this and other social measures by taxing the rich and taking over the banks. So please keep contributing to NCAFC’s big debate to build our vision of what that would look like.

The General Election

Finally, the results of the upcoming General Election will have a massive impact. As well as the smaller parties on the left, now the Labour leadership supports free education too. We want opposition parties to pledge that they will reverse the reforms and build the free and democratic education system we are demanding. If Labour or a Labour-led coalition forms the next government on such pledges, that will be excellent but even then we can’t sit back and rely on leaders to solve our problems for us. They’ll face resistance and pressure to compromise, and we’ll need to stay active to demonstrate support and generate pressure in the opposite direction for the Left to follow through on its promises. And if the election results in a Tory government or a Tory-led coalition, we won’t give up. So either way, protest and direct action will be needed.

Educate, agitate, organise!

We have a big battle ahead of us, but it’s one we can win. So let’s get out there and educate, agitate, organise – keep spreading the word about what is happening, raising our demands and arguing to convince people of our cause, and getting democratically organised for discussion and action. That means both in local groups from campus Free Education campaigns to Labour Clubs, and on the national level – come to NCAFC’s Summer Conference to discuss and decide our next steps.

See you on the streets to reverse the reforms!

Solidarity message from an Ipsos MORI worker – boycott the NSS

destroy HE nssThis anonymous message came to NCAFC we received from an call centre worker at Ipsos MORI, the market research company that carries out the National Student Survey. Remember, when Ipsos MORI call you up to hassle you about the survey, the person on the other end of the phone probably don’t like it much more than you – so don’t forget to be polite when you tell them you won’t be completing the NSS and ask them to remove you from the contact list!

I have worked for Ipsos Mori (a market research company with call centres based in Edinburgh and Newcastle) for over 2 months now and to be honest I’ve worked for worse places. Most of the staff and management were nice with most of the people taking my quality control being very friendly giving constructive feedback but it’s a shame this wasn’t there right at the start. After apply for the job I was asked to do an assessment at the call centre. After a brief training period I completed the assessment and passed, only to be told by the trainer that if it was up to her she would have failed me which is always a nice way to be welcomed to a company.

After a few weeks of the joys of a zero hour contract we were assigned to the National Student Survey project. Before we began calling students up asking if they could take part we were given a 15 minute briefing. During this briefing we were informed of the most efficient way of getting as many surveys as possible. One of the things that came up in this briefing was the student boycott. It was described to us as a boycott being conducted by some Unions within the NUS as a misguided attempt to protest the fees and that the NSS ‘has nothing to do with student fees’ and ‘all the results can be found online’ and it’s simply a way of allowing students to make an ‘informed choice’ of which Uni to go to.  This was the response we were to give to students who told us they were taking part in the boycott in the hopes of convincing them to do the survey. There was no punishment for not trying to convince students to ignore the boycott but when your wages are determined by the number of successful surveys you complete in an hour there is a financial incentive to do so.

Although there is no active attempt to try and undermine the boycott the never nature of the market research means that some interviewers will attempt to persuade students to do so, this isn’t to blame them after all they are just doing their jobs, but if the boycott is to be successful it is important that every student knows to boycott the NSS and have clear arguments as to why it is detrimental to them and future students’ education.

Despite these challenges I know that with determination and courage a united student movement can mount an effective boycott that will force management to listen to us. To all students out there know that you have my full support and solidarity and wish you all the best with the boycott.

In Solidarity,
Mori Mole

Teaching Excellence Framework day of action #boycottNSS

Chelsea College of Art campus, University of the Arts London

Chelsea College of Art campus, University of the Arts London

On January 26th, the deadline for university submissions to the Teaching Excellence Framework, students coordinated cross-campus actions to protest against the Higher Education reforms.

Students at LSE, UCL, UAL, KCL, Queen Mary, Warwick and Bath Spa universities as well as City and Islington College put up banners calling for the Government’s plans to be dropped, and for a boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS).

The Teaching Excellence Framework is a Government scheme which is being introduced this year, aimed at measuring the quality of teaching in UK universities. It will rank universities Gold, Silver or Bronze according to metrics including NSS results, graduate outcomes and retention rates, and allow universities to increase fees by rates depending on their score. Despite major student-led campaigns on multiple campuses demanding that institutions opt out of the framework, most English universities decided to submit to the TEF.

The Higher Education and Research Bill, which is currently at Committee Stage in the House of Lords, also includes measures to make it easier for private providers to attain degree awarding powers and to become universities, as well as for established institutions to close down.

At the National Union of Students conference in April, students passed a policy to boycott the NSS as a means to disrupting the TEF until the Government backs down on its plans. The NSS is a survey given to final year undergraduates to rate their course and institution.

Ana Oppenheim from the National Executive Council of NUS, said: “The Teaching Excellence Framework has nothing to do with teaching quality, and everything to do with fee rises, marketisation and serving the interests of business at the expense of students and staff. The reforms are an attack on the very idea of public education, and we will use any means available to us to fight for its future.”

Monty Shield from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, said: “We are fighting the Higher Education Reforms because they are going to rank up the role of private providers in our education system, majorly harming the conditions of both staff and students. Statistics from the National Student Survey (NSS) are a key part of this new system. In our boycott of the NSS we are showing the government that we have the power to take away the data they need for these reforms, and will continue to do so until they are defeated.”

For more information, contact: 07895405312, 07546233426 or 07758948478.