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 In 2016, NUS passed policy to boycott the survey until the recent higher education reforms are withdrawn.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!’

Opinion: “Why NCAFC? Or, Where We Are & Where We Should Go”

quarmby demo smoke“Free Education Now: Tax The Rich” demo, Nov 2017 © Natasha Quarmby Photography

By Monty Shield (in a personal capacity)

Contrasting terms

Compare snapshots of this term and the first term of last year. The national political picture has changed dramatically for the better. And so has student politics and the fight for free education funded by taxing the rich.

In April 2016, NCAFC won a vote at NUS’ national conference mandating our national union to hold a free education demo in the Autumn term. The leadership of NUS took a left turn and a 2016 demo was organised in earnest. But breaking the mandate from conference, the demo was politically vague – centring around the slogan “United for Education”. A few thousand gathered, less than the year before. It was flat and, crucially, failed to attract and inspire many new activists.

This stood in contrast to NCAFC’s free education demo the previous year: politically harder, louder and unapologetically for free education against the marketisation of universities and colleges. There are several activists now on our national committee who often remind us that 2015’s November protest was there first engagement with local and national activism.

If NUS’s demo was disappointing, the national picture was dire. The election of Corbyn as Labour leader the year before had made many of us rightfully hopeful that his commitment to free education would take forward our struggle significantly. But at this point Labour were around 13 points behind in the polls, on their way to a 21 point gap, after a summer in which a third of the Labour Party had voted for Owen Smith in the leadership race – a politician who made consistent sexist gaffes, wanted to throw migrants under the bus, and who refused to oppose the Islamophobic Prevent programme. What’s more, the Corbyn leadership was capitulating on key issues: support of free movement was ditched, as was opposition to Trident. It looked like Corbyn’s chances of winning a general election were a fantasy, and that whatever the right wing backlash that followed his impending exit, they would be sure to make sure free education was side-lined for good.

Then followed NUS’s national conference and a near clean-sweep for the rightwing slate.

It is not surprising that there was not a large abundance of local activity throughout last year, or that there was a slight drop-off in direct engagement with NCAFC over the summer. NCAFC’s traditional base – local free education/’Defend Education’ activist groups had peeled off or fallen away and the conditions were not there for them to start again. The mood of many core activists in the student movement was a deflated one.

There was one exception that first term. At the start of December students in the activist group Warwick for Free Education occupied a £5.3m new university conference building. They demanded an end to an anti-occupation injunction on students at Warwick and called for the university to give better conditions to academic staff and carry out non-compliance with Teaching Excellence Framework. They transformed the construction space into a democratically run area, filled it with political discussion and won some major concessions from management, including a lifting of the injunction. This occupation was a reminder, not just of the need for direct action, but of it’s potential for successfully shaping universities to how we want them to be.

While activists were organising on their campuses locally, we would then have to wait months for the next victories, grinding our way through a depressing second term.

But after months, things did turn around. In March we got the news that the NSS Boycott had been a success in twelve institutions and majorly dented the results in dozens more. This was despite a lackluster approach from NUS and many of the places where the boycott was most successful were places where NCAFC activists had put their head down and campaigned for months, not knowing if their work would pay off.

It did, and the Government has since been forced to respond and change their plans as a result. Indeed, this time last year they had rampantly pushed through their higher education reforms and were raising fees. Yet a few weeks ago they announced a freeze on fees under pressure from students and are far less openly bold about their marketisation agenda, even if we can expect them to pursue it for as long as they are in Government.

The NSS Boycott was followed by a big win for the rent strike at UCL. And then incredible victories for heavily exploited, often migrant workers at LSE and SOAS. And while it did not get much coverage outside of activist circles, at University of the Arts London an all-women occupation halted 8 staff redundancies.

This all happened around the time of the general election. Over a couple of months, free education became hugely popular with workers and students across the country. In constituencies heavily dominated by students, seats were won for Labour because of the popularity of the boldly left wing manifesto and students who came out and campaigned day in and day out.

Much of the spirit found in those victories is there in first term now

Building on work from last year, students and workers campaigning together at Bath University have forced the resignation of their Vice-Chancellor, the highest paid in the country. VC Breakwell was a symbol for – and key actor in – the marketisation of higher education across the country. We are still to see the full effects of this nationally but it could be huge.

There are also significant local campaigns happening across the country: for the living wage such as at Nottingham, Cambridge and Abertay; for cheaper rents at places like Bristol, Surrey, Sussex, UCL and Aberdeen (the last place of which recently ran a very popular campaign for the election of a new university rector on the basis of a commitment to fighting for migrant and migrant students against xenophobia, for better mental health services, lower rents and LGBTQ+ rights); against Prevent at Queen Mary; and against staff cuts at Manchester. Yesterday there was a demo at UCL for better mental health services during an open day. This is to name but a few of the active places (and apologies to the campuses not mentioned).

On top of this, University of London workers are getting organised. The victories at SOAS and LSE show us what is possible, as does the legacy of the succesfull 3 Cosas campaign by migrant cleaners at Senate House in London, who went on strike successfully over sick pay, holidays and pensions in 2013-14.

And since the first term of the last academic year and now, we’ve seen the first ever strike of McDonald’s workers in the UK, and the major expansion of the Picturehouse strike for a living wage.

The point is that even before we factor in the Free Education Now – Tax the Rich demonstration on Nov 15, we can see a clear change from this term to the first term of last year. There is more happening on the ground.

Is this overly optimistic?

It would be wrong and falsely optimistic to declare flippantly: “The Government is weak”; or “everything is kicking off”; or even that we are imminently to see the abolition of fees in the UK. After all, the Conservatives will doggedly hang on to Government for as long as they can.

But winning free education was always going to be a long fight. One that would involve several generations of activists patiently pushing and building, keeping free education on the agenda even at times when it appeared lost – or where it was hampered by the right or soft left of NUS.

When I got involved in NCAFC in 2014, the line we would always repeat over and over is “free education is not a pipe dream” – and we had to say that, because of how distant it did feel. Now no one is saying that, because people don’t think it is a pipe dream any more and we have moved forward significantly.

There are three things have happened over the past year which give NCAFC a renewed purpose:

  1. The struggle for free education and to win broad support for it has been moved on hugely by the election. In terms of sheer popularity, we are a long way ahead than at any point since tuition fees were introduced in the UK almost 20 years ago. The tide has started to turn on the Government and it is up to us to make the most of it.
  2. Students may have campaigned for Labour in the election. But there are swathes of people not yet politically convinced of the need to campaign between elections. They are not yet convinced that, as the Warwick and UCL comrades showed us, the way we win is from the bottom up. Our job is to win people round to this perspective, through discussion and debate, and organising locally and through national actions like the demo and NSS Boycott.
  3. There are activists fighting on the ground across the UK, by and large not through Defend Education, Free Education or anti-cuts groups as they did following the upsurge in 2010. Instead, activists are doing incredible work on the ground across different areas as outlined above.

That’s where NCAFC comes in

Our job as NCAFC is to re-orientate towards the new situation and to what activists are really doing on the ground, and to link these existing and growing campaigns up into a national movement. We exist to be a collection of these activists – in many places we are these activists, and in many we still need to recruit people to NCAFC – and we exist to be a democratically decided national voice and coordination. This collective strength is what drives forward our national events, and the national events serve to harness this collective strength.

This was perhaps the biggest purpose of the Free Education Now – Tax the Rich demo. It may have been smaller than we would have liked, but the payoff has been very big:

  1. Activists on over 50 campuses across the UK mobilised for this demo. In all these places, we have drawn anywhere from a handful of students to larger activist groups into national political struggle. This includes in campuses and areas where NCAFC has never known activists before.
  2. The demo was loud, energetic and attended by a lot of these new activists. This is crucial. It is NCAFC’s role – and crucial for building a genuinely democratic movement – that we call actions at a national level and bring people into the movement through organising on their campus and being part of these actions, and then coming to our democratic events to decide what to do next.
  3. It gave an incisive and clear platform for our demands: free education, living grants for all, stop the campus cuts – all funded by taxing the rich – and to our politics of supporting workers’ struggles. It is because of our demo that our slogans hit the national newspapers in the Autumn term and, for example, that thousands of people stopped outside Picturehouse Central chanting that Cineworld should pay the living wage. Our demands go further than those offered by any major political party, and we need to show that there is pressure and support for these demands from below if we are to hope to shape that national picture.

It is important that we don’t try to relate to these activists and local struggles – or conceptualise NCAFC – in a top-down way. To advance the national fight for free education, we need national strategies. And it is through this that we have and will engage activists on a local level. NCAFC should be the deliberate integration of activists involved in local organic struggles into a national movement with a narrative that sees all of these struggles within the contexts of the marketisation of education. And our national strategies should be developed by these activists both through the national committee but more importantly on the ground. Where this consistent integration, national decision-making and reintegration is not happening, we should work hard to make sure it does.

This year’s national demonstration was called by the national committee of NCAFC, in response to a mandate from our Summer Conference that we should call a demonstration if circumstances changed significantly in the months afterwards – with the conference having voted not to call a free education demo focussed on i) opposition the campus cuts and higher education reforms ii) for more funding for FE iii) votes at 16 iv) £10hr and a ban on zero hour contracts. It is ultimately good that this demonstration was voted down because I think this would have been too broad and lacked the political focus we needed and got.

When free education became national news week after week in July, with major public debate on the issue and the Conservative Government on the back foot, the national committee registered the change and acted on its mandate. This demo has acted as a focal point, bringing together activists from Aberdeen to Sussex and Swansea to Newcastle, and dozens of campuses in between, into one united action. We have started to turn the tide of the national demoralisation from last year and opened up the potential for ourselves to have a genuine relationship with activists across the country.

NSS Boycott 2018

The 2018 NSS Boycott will act in a similar way. It will dent the Government’s university metrics again, and serve as a unifying action that ties together activists on the ground. The NSS boycott is now a national strategy because at a NCAFC conference in the academic year 2014/15 a NCAFC member (not indeed on the NC) raised this suggestion. We took it forward as an organisation, developed it and at a later NCAFC conference committed to it. And we took it forward to NUS and won.

All the organising that happened last year and will happen this year, all the printing and distribution of what must have been hundreds and thousands of flyers, all the hours and hours spent postering, all of the contacting of different groups, all of the new people who got involved in the campaigning last year – even the NSS Dank Memes stash – happened because there existed an organisation in the student movement that created the conditions for a suggestion like that to be made and considered, for people to be convinced of that idea and for that idea to be given a national voice and turned into a strategy that actually forced the Government to backtrack and re-write the metrics for the Teaching Excellence Framework.

This weekend, we will re-debate whether or not to continue our involvement with the NSS boycott. If we want a coherent national strategy, we should absolutely vote to continue it.

The Autumn Speaker Tour

Another key thing that laid some of the groundwork for our future activism was this year’s Autumn speaker tour, organised by one of the new NC members. It turned into the most successful tour that we have seen in years. This involved NCAFC activists travelling around different parts of the country, making and reinforcing local connections.

Can NCAFC do no wrong?

Well, yes we can and we do need to change parts of our earlier analysis. Firstly, it is clear that some of the predictions we made at our Summer Conference earlier this year were wrong. At Summer Conference, we predicted that the academic staff cuts sweeping the country would lead to lots of anti-cuts campaigns and that our job would be to link up with in the first term, and link them together nationally – after all, NCAFC grew out of such a movement in 2010. Had this happened, it may well have provided the backbone for a significantly larger national demonstration.

Despite doing significant legwork of contacting lots of campuses, this upsurge did not happen and the only place a major struggle has taken place this term, at Manchester University, there was already an existing left activist base. It proved difficult to enthuse people to take up the fight on their campuses with us, without having had any previous relationship with NCAFC or our national events.

It is also clear that we need to build a more reciprocal political relationship between campus activist groups and other NCAFC activists nationally. This includes looking to Scotland, where there is a lot of potential for developing NCAFC activism and putting demands to a Government in Scotland that has for too long used the fact that is doesn’t charge fees for home students as a cover for huge attacks on further education, a failure to control extortionate rents, and the treatment of international students as cash cows. There is a strategy amendment that Scottish comrades and I have submitted to this weekend’s conference about developing NCAFC Scotland which I would encourage everyone to vote for.

Additionally, as many activists as possible from across the country should run for the NCAFC national committee, and as well as a renewed drive to widen NCAFC activity out of the NC, this should act as a springboard for unlocking the potential for national and local activism in front of us.

Where is NUS in all this?

There is huge disconnect between NUS and activists on the ground. This has not been helped by the fact that while hundreds of students were mobilising for this demo in the first weeks of Autumn term, the rightwing President Shakira Martin blocked our attempts to link NUS up with this grassroots organising by blocking a demo support motion at the NUS’s National Executive Council (the decision-making body of elected representatives that decides NUS policy between conferences).

To their credit, a much higher number than usual of the NUS full-time officers and NEC members saw the need for the demo and put in some work to build it: whether it was leafleting, transporting materials to campuses, or stewarding on the day. This marks another key function of the demo: after the left’s defeat at NUS conference in the summer it has acted as a relatively unifying force, bringing people together under the banner of free education funded by taxing the rich.

NCAFC has been the national driving force this Autumn, and has carved out a place for itself in national student politics on our terms. We need to take this forward into NUS and use the potential this year to help us take the next step in transforming it into an activist union.

We should encourage the activists we’ve met through this term’s actions to run for NUS delegate, and actively support them in doing this. And we should NUS conference as another opportunity to give a national voice to our politics, winning round the delegates in the room, and the students outside of it. This means taking every opportunity we can – through submitting motions and running candidates – to defeat the right wing of conference and also win round the rest of the left to our politics and the need for democratic organising and direct action.

Unlocking potential

A huge amount of energy went into our Autumn activity, and it has paid off. Collectively it has given us a good overview of the picture nationally: this is not just in terms of knowing what is happening and in many places driving forward local activity, but also knowing what isn’t going to spark and escalate, such as widespread local anti-cuts campaigns.

We have a renewed national prominence and function. And we can reassess the national picture from a position of strength and knowing there is so much potential to unlock in front of us. Let’s take this into term two, link up these local campaigns and be involved on the ground and at a national level as much as we can. Let’s go forward from this conference with a clear national strategy, including the 2018 NSS boycott, so that we can generate and be part of on-the-ground activity across the country.

This is what will help us change the face of student politics and bring us another step closer to winning free education. And knowing what we have to change, and doing it, is what will drive forward NCAFC and invigorate an active membership.

As I said at the start, there are lots of NCAFC activists who first got involved around the demo in Autumn 2015. If this was your first free education demo, consider running for the national committee, and also help us develop the link between the activism you’re doing on your campus and NCAFC’s national work and decision-making.

See you at the conference.

NUS NEC report – Ana Oppenheim

Ana OppenheimOn May 30th was the last NUS NEC meeting of the academic year. I haven’t been great at writing NEC reports so far, primarily because NEC meetings are rarely interesting. The majority of time is spent on reports and presentations. Accountability is mostly performative, with questions pre-written by officers and sent to friendly council members, many questions not being read out at all, and FTOs having as little as 20 seconds to respond. There’s no more than an hour, sometimes less, for motions at the very end of a meeting. Sometimes there’s a bit of outrage, genuine or manufactured, and the occasional passionate speech written for a 90-second Twitter video (useful during election season). But ultimately, the result of motions debate often depends on which faction can mobilise more of its members to turn up.

A lot of the real drama happens outside of meetings, during factional pre-meets and in WhatsApp groups. Nothing has made me more critical of some of the left in NUS than having experienced NEC. We’ve seen NCAFC reps being pressured to withdraw a motion on the basis that it would look bad in the media, a liberation rep being attacked for submitting a question on behalf of a member without consulting the “whip,” and many other incidents emerging from a culture where following an arbitrarily set “line” takes priority over healthy internal debate.

Having said that, I have no doubt that the right/moderate faction organises in a similarly undemocratic way but it’s not unreasonable to hold the left to higher standards. We need an NUS where diversity of opinion is seen as a good thing, where representatives elected on their own individual platforms are not expected to just pick one of two sides and blindly follow, where an accountability question is not interpreted as a personal attack. A major culture shift is necessary to build a strong movement that can discuss ideas and challenge itself to effectively fight the government. During my second year, I’m hoping to make more of a conscious effort to challenge informal hierarchies and dodgy behaviour, alongside fellow NCAFCer Hansika Jethnani who was elected on an excellent platform of democratising NUS, and other sympathetic NEC members.

Moving on to the last meeting. Firstly, the meeting was moved from March 31st to 30th just a couple of weeks before the date to avoid clashing with the holidays of Pentecost/Shavuot. This meant a number of members were unable to attend. Then it was announced that staff would withdraw their labour from the meeting, due to breaches of staff protocol. There was a long email thread about whether the meeting should be cancelled or not, which only finished on the morning of the 30th. The meeting went ahead, having just about reached the quorum of 15 members – majority of whom were representatives of Labour Students and Organised Independents.

More time than usual was dedicated to motions – partly because many officers weren’t there to present their reports. First we debated motions remitted from National Conference UD and Welfare zones, most of which passed. I was pleased that a motion about trans and intersex inclusion finally got heard – at Conference it was prioritised worryingly low, after #LoveSUs and discount cards. We also passed good motions on students’ rights at work, promoting evidence-based drug policies instead of a “zero tolerance” approach and resisting the far right, among other more or less useful ones.

A motion to fight landlord cartels fell on the basis that it didn’t specifically mention FE and apprentices. There is an unfortunate tendency in NUS for motions to be voted down not because of what they propose, but because someone isn’t entirely satisfied with the way they are written (let’s recall the infamous amendment about free childcare which fell at LGBT+ Conference this year because it didn’t mention carers of adults.) As if a nice motions document which ticks all the boxes was more important than real work that NUS should be doing in the real world, in this case on the burning issue of student housing.

A decent motion on student hardship passed, however a line about supporting living grants got removed after VP SocCit gave a speech saying that the government should not be giving money to the rich. I got up to make the argument that no adult should have to rely on their parents for financial support, especially since not everyone has a good relationship with their family and not everyone’s parents choose to support them during their studies (“we should be helping not only those whose parents are poor, but also those whose parents are dickheads.”) I also pointed out that NUS already has policy from conference in favour of living grants, so removing it from this specific motion would be meaningless. The parts then passed, changing absolutely nothing about NUS’ position on living grants.

Then we got to new motions. First I spoke on a motion to make the NSS boycott next year more effective by starting early and facilitating SUs to share best practice. The motion was then amended to say it shouldn’t be heard on NEC given that it was deprioritised by Conference, and subsequently fell. It was then misreported by VPUD that NEC voted to end the boycott. This is incorrect – NUS has a mandate from 2016 to boycott the NSS, and the right simply voted down a motion proposing to learn from this year’s experiences and run it more competently. Existing policy was not reversed. We will be holding VPHE to account to make sure the boycott is maintained.

A motion on commemorating the Slave Trade passed, with NCAFC’s amendment to celebrate grassroots resistance. A number of other motions, including Solidarity with the Palestinian People, were withdrawn to allow for a fuller debate at a bigger meeting.

I’ll be writing more reports from the strange world of NUS bureaucracy throughout the next academic year. In the meantime, NCAFC members and all students are welcome to contact me regarding any NEC matters at [email protected].

Sheffield’s fee rise shows why we need disruptive action

sheff tefJosh Berlyne, University of Sheffield

On Monday Sheffield University announced it will be raising tuition fees. As part of opting in to the Teaching Excellence Framework, fees will rise to £9,250 for undergraduates next year, and may rise to £10,000 by 2020.

This has happened despite over 3,000 students, staff and alumni signing an open letter calling on the university to opt out of the TEF.  It has happened despite Sheffield having a Vice-Chancellor who has consistently opposed tuition fees, and who has been vocal in his opposition to the TEF. This highlights a number of important points.

First, opposition to the marketisation and privatisation of universities—which fee rises, the TEF, and the higher education reforms more generally embody—will not be successful if it is localised. Universities are subject to the imperatives of a financial system which is out of their control. Any semblance of democratic control over the financing of higher education (if it could ever have been said to exist) has been blasted away; with central governmental funding slashed, universities must rely on tuition fees to sustain their budgets. As inflation rises, costs rise. This means tuition fees must also rise.

This leads to the second point. Since universities are subject to these financial imperatives, completely out of democratic control, winning the moral argument is not sufficient. No matter how convinced a Vice-Chancellor is that education should be free, they will always give in to the short-term financial pressures imposed on them. Students need to make it in the financial interests of the university and the state to act in the interests of students and workers. That means disruptive action.

The present state of affairs in universities means that the interests of students and workers are placed secondary to the financial interests of universities.  This is the wrong way around. The interests of universities should be put in line with the interests of students and workers.  The only way to do this is through democratic control.

The process of marketisation, which hands control over to the imperatives of the market, is being driven forwards by the present round of higher education reforms.  Thus resisting these reforms is a crucial part of the battle for democratic control.  The NSS boycott, which is being organized on 21 campuses across the country, is one way to generalize this battle.  In disrupting the ways in which universities are internally managed, and disrupting the management of the UK higher education sector as a whole, the boycott gives students the power to force concessions from the government.  On those campuses where a boycott is happening, students should get involved; on those where a boycott is not yet being organized, students should make organizing one their priority.

Union officers: 11 ways you can promote the NSS boycott now!

boycott-the-nssThe NSS boycott is a national campaign – to be successful, we need as many students as possible to know about it and participate, and Students’ Unions have a crucial role to play in that. Here are some ideas of how you can spread the message – use as many of them as you can, and more!

Set up an SU webpage dedicated to the campaign

You need an online space where any students can find out more information about the campaign and, crucially, what they can do to take part. Where possible this should include a mechanism by which students can pledge to boycott and request to opt out of communications from Ipsos Mori. This process is *normally* done via the University and so you may need to have conversations with the relevant university staff member(s) about how to facilitate this. Some institutions might be more awkward about it than others – make sure you stand your ground and insist that this process is a key part of the SU campaign. You want to be able to keep track of how many students have pledged, and from which departments/faculties, so that you can focus your campaign in specific areas if necessary.

Send an all-student email

The easiest and most obvious way of reaching out to students. Make sure they hear about the NSS from you before they do from the university! Include a link to your campaign webpage as well as a clear and concise explanation of why the campaign is so important.

Do lecture shout-outs

It’s easy to ignore emails but most people will remember things they heard in person – especially when they’re in a lecture and (in theory) ready to pay attention! You need to figure out where the key lectures are for you to hit – remember that only a certain demographic of students are eligible to fill out the NSS and so you need to target the right people. Draw up a timetable of relevant lectures, chat to lecturers in advance to ask if you can have 5 minutes at the start to talk about the campaign and leave flyers/stickers for students to pick up at the end. Get to as many of these as you can!

Put up posters

Design your own posters or run a competition for students to make their own – think as creatively as possible! You can also encourage students to take down or deface university posters promoting the survey and share a photo!

Run stalls

You need to make sure the campaign is as visible as possible, and that there are people out there on the ground who can chat to students, answer any questions and, of course, win the key arguments! If possible, have a laptop/tablet at the stall so that students can pledge to boycott right there and then.

Work with your UCU branch

Remember that UCU National Congress passed a motion supporting the NSS boycott! If you haven’t done so already, get in touch with your campus branch to talk to them about how you can work together to promote the campaign. See if staff members would be willing to put up a slide about the NSS boycott at the beginning of their lectures to spread awareness – students generally really respect what academics have to say, and so as much visible support from staff as possible would make a huge difference to the campaign.

Make a video

Simple really – a brief video breaking down what the NSS boycott is and why it’s necessary that can be shared around social media would be really useful!

Do creative actions

Alongside all the regular comms and publicity strategies, you need stunts/actions which will create a proper buzz on campus about the NSS boycott. This could be a banner drop, a sit-in, a rally, a march and more! Collaborate with grassroots activists to ensure maximum impact.

Reach out to societies

If you have any activist groups on campus, political societies (Labour? People & Planet? A strong Fem Soc?) or even less obvious communities (like sports teams?!), speak to them and try to get key people on board e.g society execs – they could send out member emails/general communications about the NSS boycott which will really help with engagement.

Contact course reps

Following on from the previous point, you don’t just want students to hear about the campaign from the SU, but from their flatmates, their fellow society/club members and their coursemates. Hence course representatives are a key group to try and get on board; they will generally be used to chatting to fellow students and spreading awareness/information and so if you can work with them to do this with the NSS boycott it would make a huge difference. You should encourage them to bring the issue up in departmental meetings and ensure you’re supporting them in terms of winning the arguments.

Run workshops

Most importantly, don’t assume that students aren’t interested. The Higher Education reforms – from fee increases, enforced competition, universities shutting down and being replaced with private companies – will affect everyone. It’s your job to break down these issues and make the campaign as accessible as possible, so ensure you’re facilitating spaces where students can access necessary knowledge and information!

Fighting the commodification and casualisation of higher education

Mark Campbell, London Met UCU (Vice-chair), London Region UCU (Higher Education Chair)

Re-posted with permission from London Met UCU’s blog

londonmetmay2016

This Monday, London Met UCU published the damning conclusions of a workload survey we recently conducted. It’s main findings were the shocking, health damaging, increase in workload – following continuing mass redundancies, now affecting London Met’s permanent substantive staff. Essentially, contractual workload protections have been subverted through the convenient mechanism of line-managers not recognising ANY work other than face-to-face lecturer-student teaching as needing to be measured (but still expected under threat of discipline to be conducted). The documented survey comments highlighting those appalling lived-experiences are shocking.

However, what our survey also highlighted was the other, even more discriminating, and health-risking, side of the modern commodified dystopian university: a permanently exploited, zero-houred, reserve army of labour. These staff have zero job-security, zero-reward for years of service, zero-protection from redundancy (their zero-hour contract is constructed to allow them to be permanently-redundant between crumbs of work). The appalling conditions of casualised lecturing staff are not unique to London Met, and are shockingly highlighted in today’s Guardian front-page and accompanying articles.

London Met management may be ahead of the pack in their future-imperfect full on rush to a privatised market dystopia, but the rest of the university sector are now snapping at its heals and about to be let off the leash by the Higher Education Bill 2016.

All university staff, permanent substantive or casualised, have a vested interest in fighting to end the commodification of education, and its equally evil twin, the casualisation of university labour. We need permanent secure contracts for all staff, that truly reflect and reward ALL the work that we do, and we need enough staff that allow us to deliver the sort of quality service that our students deserve. The neo-liberal model has failed. Time to remove it from education.

In these circumstances, and particularly at this critical time, its an absolute disgrace that the current UCU leadership have acted to disarm our members in that fight by dropping our national industrial action and pay campaign that was explicitly aimed at taking on all our employers over their collective guilt and complicity over both increasing casualisation and the equally shocking increasing gender pay-gap.

FInally, with regards to the Higher Education Bill 2016, we don’t need fatally flawed measures of ‘teaching excellence’ or ‘student satisfaction surveys’ – indeed, we should be supporting the NUS decision to boycott the NSS. Instead, what we really need is proper investment in the essential public good that a university education is. That starts with recognising the critical role that university staff play in forming and delivering that public good. It means recognising, as the NUS does, that ‘staff working conditions are students learning conditions’. It means recognising that society as a whole inextricably benefits from an educated workforce and critically engaged citizenry, therefore society should pay for it through student grants and direct university block grants via increased business taxation. We need to break the rod of mass student indebtedness and free from their shackles our indentured university employees.

This is why I, and thousands of others, will be marching this Saturday in London, United for Education.

 

NCAFC responds to the attempt to undermine the NSS boycott

PRESS RELEASE: NUS TO BALLOT MEMBERS ON RISK ASSESSING BOYCOTT

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: 07895405312, 07584092431, 07901844980

EDUCATION NOT MARKETISATIONThe National Union of Students (NUS) announced on Friday that it will ballot all members on whether to publish a risk assessment and an equality impact assessment of the proposed boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS).

All members will be asked, “Should NUS conduct and publish a risk assessment and equality impact assessment before finalising the NSS boycott / sabotage action?” The ballot was demanded by officers at 35 students’ unions.

In April, student delegates to NUS National Conference voted to boycott the National Student Survey until government scrap the proposed higher education (HE) reforms. By refusing to fill in the survey, students will disrupt government’s flagship proposal, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), along with other key market mechanisms. The motion passed at NUS National Conference stated that, “The HE reforms currently being considered by the government represent a fundamental attack on the idea of education as a public service. It is a blueprint for the marketisation of the sector, introducing private providers and variable fees, and orientating the whole sector towards the needs of employers.”

The HE reforms include plans to raise tuition fees and encourage private companies to set up universities. The White Paper on Higher Education also claimed that government has no duty to prevent the closure of public universities. Josh Berlyne, a Sheffield University student, said, “Calling a national ballot to risk assess a boycott? It’s ludicrous. Public education is in crisis right now, and these people are worried about students not filling in a survey. Students and academics are crying out to stop the HE reforms—2,300 at Sheffield University signed an open letter saying so. And while all this is going on, there are students’ union officers who want to slow down the only serious proposal to stop these reforms.”

Sahaya James, student at University of the Arts and NUS National Executive Council member, said, “On one level, calling for a risk assessment of the boycott is laughable. But it’s also insulting. Risk assessments exist to prevent deaths and serious injuries at work. They’re not meant to be used as an underhand tactic to prevent unions from taking effective action. It’s a joke and a disgrace.”

More information on the ballot can be found here: http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/groups/shape-our-work/articles/chief-returning-officer-opens-national-ballot