A topic of much controversy this past week has been the National Student Survey (NSS). Briefly, this is a national survey by the government for all final year students about how satisfied they are with their degree. Seems fairly standard, right? I mean, isn’t it just the government and universities finding out how students like their degree? Not so.
There is an ulterior motive to the survey this year: raising tuition fees for the rest of us. The government is planning to allow universities to raise tuition fees in 2017-18 by up to £250 based partly upon their score in this survey. This is part of the new Teaching Excellence Framework which is being put in place by the government, despite the protests of students and academics. This survey would be part of ranking universities into ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’ level institutions; all of which would be able to raise fees at different levels. Based on other factors, Oxford would almost certainly be put in the ‘Gold’ category, and so be able to raise fees by the maximum amount for next year. As the majority of students would rather their fees not be raised, OUSU, along with the NUS and student unions across the country, is advocating that Oxford students should boycott the survey. This would disrupt the implementation of the framework as the survey being completed by a large amount of students is a necessary condition for it being implemented.
There are some reasonable arguments against boycotting the survey which focus on the information that the survey is gathering. They argue that not only is it useful for the university to have such information about student satisfaction, but it is useful for student representation. Having such information about how much students like or dislike aspects of their degree and university gives students and their representatives the ammunition to change things which students want changed. That is certainly true. It is useful for OUSU to have information on what we think about Oxford to try and change it. Going into negotiations or meetings with specific facts and figures does strengthen your case compared to simply having a vague idea that your mate doing Maths doesn’t like one of his 9am lectures as it backs up assertions. But this crucially is not the case at Oxford. Oxford runs another survey which does exactly that, the Student Barometer. Therefore, these arguments do not have weight at Oxford (representatives have this information with or without the NSS). Critics also argue that OUSU should be focusing instead on the impact of the cost of living on students, as that is seriously detrimental to the welfare of students who aren’t lucky enough to have parents who can help them with it. This is a valid point, but the two are not mutually exclusive. The fact that OUSU is campaigning on this one aspect of university costs should not also stop it campaigning to reduce living costs generally too, or vice versa.
Ignore the fact that ranking universities into ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’ will devalue the degrees of hard-working students at universities which don’t get a ‘Gold’. That effort shouldn’t be degraded because simply because the university you went to doesn’t suit some arbitrary metrics.
Ignore the fact that such a ranking system seems blatantly elitist in favour of richer universities which are more likely to have the resources to get a ‘Gold’ according to the other TEF criteria. Just because you don’t have the resources of a million donations from rich ex-students behind you, doesn’t mean that you don’t have inspiring lecturers who can teach their subject well.
Ignore the fact that the government who proposed it have overlooked the views of the vast majority of students consulted about this change. They are meant to represent us, weirdly enough, so the fact that they aren’t should be especially galling.
Think instead about how this sets a precedent for universities to raise tuition fees by several percent every single year. If they raise fees, it increases the amount of debt future students will be left with for the rest of their lives. So this move is yet another step towards higher debt for students, which research from the higher education network has shown can distort choices made by students from lower socio-economic backgrounds about going to university. Also, even if daddy is paying, he probably doesn’t want to pay more. The trade off the government is making here is depriving universities of proper central-government funding and making students make up the gap while cutting the taxes of multi-million pound corporations like Starbucks. If your priorities are the bottom line of Vodafone or Starbucks then I am sure that this is not a problem. I doubt that they are though.
Therefore, there is a solid case for boycotting this NSS survey, and I would encourage every finalist to do so. Ultimately it might not stop the fee rises entirely or change the government’s mind, however there is a chance that it will due to its essential role in the TEF evaluation, and then every future year will be grateful for it. It is also a step that you can take to fight this immoral legislation and make a difference. Go for it. You know you want to.