National student boycott invalidates National Student Survey data

Noella Chye 22 April 2017

A student boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS) is thought to have invalidated the results of the survey for at least 9 UK universities.

The National Union of Students claims to have seen correspondence revealing that completion rates were as low as 27.5% at Russell Group universities such as Bristol. For results to be valid, at least 50% of final year undergraduates at the university must complete the survey.

Finalists across Britain have been boycotting the survey in a bid for the government to make changes to the controversial Higher Education and Research Bill. In particular, students are concerned about the link between the NSS and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) proposed in the bill leading to a rise in tuition fees.

The bill proposes to rank universities in order of teaching quality using data from the NSS. The best universities would then be allowed to charge higher fees in correspondence with their ranking, meaning access to top universities would become even more restricted.

Sorana Vieru, Vice President of Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: "The fact that thousands of students across the country have decided to boycott the National Student Survey shows how strongly they feel about the Government using their feedback to raise tuition fees.

"Jo Johnson [Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation] has said countless times he wants to create a system that listens to students and works in their interests. Well, students have spoken loud and clear, and it is now time for the Minister to act, and halt these damaging reforms."

Amatey Doku, CUSU president said: "The government has re-assured Universities that even if NSS does not meet the criteria to be included this year, they will still be eligible for TEF, as the TEF takes account of metrics for the previous three years. It’s become clear that without knowing how much the provider submission is worth in comparison to the NSS and other metrics, the boycott doesn’t work. The only way we can really fight for students is if we work with the new key player within the Higher Education Sector, the Office for Students, where currently we have no student representation."

Reforms of the bill were defeated by 27 votes to 221 in the House of Lords in January, with MPs expressing concerns that the move would unacceptably commercialise higher education. The NUS maintain that peers have already debated a staggering 600 amendments to the bill, making significant changes to government plans.

In accordance with the NUS campaign to boycott the NSS, CUSU encouraged Cambridge students not to fill in the survey. Facebook posts and an email from CUSU Sabbs advised students to boycott the NSS, citing the potential increase in tuition fees and the opposition faced by the bill in the House of Lords. The University Council and General Board opted into the second stage of the TEF – known as TEF2 –  in December 2016, despite an open letter condemning the move being signed by 443 members of the university.

The Higher Education and Research bill returns to the Commons for debate next week. The government must act quickly to pass the bill before the imminent general election, and may have to make further concessions to do so given the opposition to the bill in the House of Commons.