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 In 2016, NUS passed policy to boycott the survey until the recent higher education reforms are withdrawn.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


NSS boycott first year makes a big dent: bring on round two!

London College of Communications campus, University of the Arts LondonOn 9th August, the NSS results were released and it was confirmed that the NSS boycott had invalidated the data for 12 universities. This is something to celebrate and to build upon.

NCAFC have been advocating for a boycott of the survey for years; and in 2016, its proposed link to the Teaching Excellence Framework meant that the motion at NUS Conference passed overwhelmingly. NUS must stand by its mandate from National Conference and continue to push the boycott, not shy away from meaningful action – because in order to break the TEF, we will have to continue to build the NSS boycott until the higher education reforms are withdrawn.

We aren’t just campaigning against the increase of fees, but the wholesale marketisation of education which the TEF promises to usher in.

Surveys like the NSS help integrate competition into the heart of our universities. Universities have already been pushed to operate as businesses, incentivised to cut costs and spend more money on PR, advertising and big pay packets for management rather than on pay, teaching and support services for staff and students. The fight for free education lies not only in abolishing fees, but in the thorough eviction of the market from higher education; universities should be acting in the interests of students and staff, not money and big business.

The NSS boycott has been one of the most radical, far-reaching and effective campaigns have students and activists have pushed through in years. In mobilising students in the fight against the marketisation of HE, the boycott has already forced delays in fee rises – and even pushed the House of Lords to attempt to totally sever the link between the TEF and fee increases, with the boycott being quoted in the debate.

We have the power, the resources and the potential to carry this momentum even further. We should build upon our successes and push for an even stronger and bigger boycott next year. If we had 25 SUs boycotting it this year, let’s make it 100 next year – bring on NSS boycott 2018!

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.

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!

Model motion: Sabotage the NSS!

The government’s Higher Education White Paper, Success As A Knowledge Economy, proposes reforms which, if implemented, will pave the way for the end of public higher education as we know it.  Higher, variable fees will be introduced; private providers will be given help into the market as public universities are allowed to collapse; and “teaching excellence” will be measured on the basis of “student satisfaction” and the kinds of jobs graduates go into–rather than good quality teaching.  NUS is organising a national sabotage of the National Student Survey as part of a strategy to resist these reforms.  Get your SU to organise a local sabotage of the NSS by passing this motion at your SU Council!


SU notes

  1. The government’s May 2016 White Paper outlined extensive reforms to higher education.
  2. The flagship reform, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), will rely on data from the National Student Survey (NSS) and Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey.
  3. Institutions which score highly in the TEF will be able to raise fees in line with inflation from 2017-19, followed by even higher level fees in 2019-20. (1)
  4. NUS is mandated to organise a national boycott or sabotage of NSS and DLHE as part of a strategy against the reforms.


SU believes

  1. The reforms fundamentally attack the idea of education as a public service.
  2. There are many reasons to oppose NSS, e.g. that it systematically discriminates against BME academics. (2)
  3. Sabotaging NSS and DLHE will disrupt the introduction of TEF, giving us leverage.
  4. A local-organised boycott/sabotage should only be done as part of a national boycott/sabotage organised by NUS.


SU resolves

  1. To organise a boycott/sabotage of NSS and DLHE, including:
    1. Refusing to promote NSS or have any pro-NSS material with the SU logo on;
    2. In term one 2016 running a campaign collecting pledges from finalists to boycott/sabotage the NSS;
    3. Working with UCU to discourage NSS promotion by academics and encourage academics to actively promote the sabotage instead;
    4. Promoting the sabotage through posters, leafleting, door-knocking and social media especially when the survey is released;
    5. Taking part in national actions and demonstrations linked to the NSS boycott/sabotage.
  2. To work with the University and UCU to create a local, non-metric-focused alternative to NSS to assess and thereby improve students’ learning experiences.




Boycott the 2017 National Student Survey to stop the higher education reforms!

Boycott the NSS to stop the HE reformsThis NUS conference, we are putting forward a motion to boycott or sabotage next year’s National Student Survey (NSS) and the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education Survey (DLHE).These surveys are bad in themselves: they’re used as a weapon to beat academic staff with and as an excuse to restructure departments. Student satisfaction ratings like these are also racially-biased and gendered, so that women and black academics score lower, and they are essential to maintaining a market in education which pits us all against each other.

There is a good case for not participating in these surveys regardless of any other factors, but in this instance we want to use the importance of these surveys to HE bosses as leverage to defeat the current reforms which represent an attack to education as a public service. We are proposing that NUS will mobilise students to sabotage or boycott the NSS and DLHE if the HE reforms and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) are not withdrawn and we need your help in getting the NUS to do this.

What are the HE reforms and the TEF?

The HE reforms were outlined in the Higher Education Green Paper of November last year. They contain proposals to further marketise higher education, which will make it easier for for-profit private provider to enter the market, for fees to be increased, for universities to shut down and for business to dictate what we learn. A core component of these reforms is the TEF. It will use statistics from the NSS and the DHLE, as well as other data, to supposedly measure the quality of teaching. This means that good teaching will be at least partly defined by the extent to which it increases the value of our work to employers and big business. Scoring well in the TEF would also allow universities to put up their fees, increasing the cost of education and creating further competition in a tiered system between different universities. If these proposals go through, they will radically transform our education for the worse.

Why boycott/sabotage the NSS and DHLE as a strategy?

In order for the TEF to function as intended, students have to participate in both of these surveys. These surveys are also used in other league tables and calculations which those who wish to create a market in the HE sector are dependent upon. If students, en masse, either refused to fill in the surveys at all or sabotaged it by giving artificially maximum or minimum scores, the results would become of little use and would wreck plans for the TEF, having a knock-on impact on other HE reforms and causing havoc with other procedures already in place to manage and marketise the sector. This should act as a major disincentive for the government to go through with their agenda.

How would it work?

If this motion passes, the Vice President Higher Education, in consultation with National Executive Committee and education workers who are affected by the TEF, would carry out research and devise the most effective boycott/sabotage strategy. In June, NUS will write to the government and announce that the NUS will mobilise students to sabotage or boycott the NSS and DLHE if the HE reforms and the TEF are not withdrawn. If the government refuses to withdraw the HE reforms, the NUS will work to mobilise students to sabotage or boycott the Spring 2017 NSS, and the next year’s DLHE. The campaign should begin at the start of Autumn Term 2016 collecting pledges from students that they will carry out the action if the HE reforms are not withdrawn.

How can you help?

If we’re going to get enough students to participate in the boycott/sabotage to make it effective, we need this motion to pass at NUS National Conference. It’s already been successful at NUS Postgraduate Conference and NUS LGBT+ Conference, and we know with enough work we can get it to pass nationally as well. Lobby your delegates to vote in favour of it or take a motion to your SU council to mandate them to vote for it. Share information about this campaign and look out for upcoming actions to get involved with. If you’re coming to NUS Conference, get in contact with us and let us know that you’re up for campaigning there. Email [email protected]

To spread the word, please click attending, invite and share this facebook event:

The motion itself can found in this document, listed under 201b: