NSS boycotts – holding future generations to ransom “for their own good”

Juliette Bretan 30 April 2017

You have inevitably received e-mails telling you not to fill out the National Student Survey, because the results from the NSS could be used by universities to increase their fees from next year by £250.

I worked advertising the NSS to my peers last year, and engaging with the NSS and its aims, getting perspective from both staff and students was enlightening. Staff recognise that students will be much more open when giving anonymous feedback, and genuinely value the input they receive from the surveys and act upon it. Moreover, some universities turn filling out the NSS into a charitable act by giving money to charity for each survey completed. In Cambridge particularly, where lecturers are experts in their fields, students might feel uncomfortable giving feedback face to face; so the NSS is an invaluable opportunity to enable reports to be given.

However, this year we have been told in e-mails by CUSU that “it’s a trap”. This is because of Teaching Excellence Framework 2, or TEF2, which would allow top universities according to the NSS results to increase tuition fees in line with inflation; in this case, to £9250. What you haven’t been told, it seems, is that these are not based solely on this year’s survey, but on surveys from the past three years, as well as a wide range of other factors.

Some issues must be raised with regards to this. Firstly, if this year’s NSS is only one of many factors, and is not actually needed by a university to raise its tuition fees, does boycotting it help? The short answer here, in my opinion, is no. Instead, by boycotting the NSS and perhaps making the results invalid, this year’s graduating students have held future generations of students to ransom “for their own good” of not having to pay a marginal fee increase, the likes of which were, in fact, common before tuition fees were raised. After all, inflation happens, and the cost of teaching a student at university will naturally increase year after year. Next year’s students will face the same problems as those who are graduating this year as a result of the boycott, and arguably these will be even harder to solve as the problems will be more ingrained.

Moreover, an e-mail from CUSU stated that a rise of £250 will have a detrimental effect on access work. If this is the case, then access work is not doing its job in publicising what tuition fees really are to disadvantaged students. As someone who has now finished one degree, I can tell you that I am not being chased to repay my student debt, and will indeed only pay back when I am earning above the threshold for repayments. It is essentially a small addition to tax above a certain amount of earnings, in England £21,000 per year. Adding £250 of “debt” to a degree which, maintenance loans included, is already at above £40,000 should not be discouraging people to apply, especially when employment prospects and salaries from Cambridge graduates are on average much better. It is up to access work to ensure that people are not put off by this and see student debt for what it really is, a tax that disappears after 30 years, and not a millstone round your neck.

Finally, the link between TEF and tuition fees has just been severed thanks to an amendment by the House of Lords. While we cannot say for sure why they chose to do this, I think they had a lot more on their minds than the NSS boycott when making this decision. Maybe the boycott achieved its aim, maybe it didn’t. But the focus here should be on the future. The next generations of students may be losing out in their university experience because our generation refused to help; even after we benefitted from feedback that previous students gave via the NSS.