by Lucy Auger
Just last week, a key date in the university calendar fell for another year – the release of the results of the National Student Survey (NSS). The NSS, completed by thousands of final year undergraduate students each year, is a data collection tool that is used to promote competition and rank student satisfaction in universities across the country.
In the marketplace of education, the NSS fails to examine quality, and instead provides a false measure of value for money that leaves students and staff open to exploitation. UEA has seen a slight rise in student satisfaction according to the NSS, whilst satisfaction in the students’ union has fallen. Naturally the first assumption many will move to is that this sliding satisfaction ranking is as a result of a series of controversial and polarising decisions taken within the students’ union – the most notorious being the infamous ‘sombrero-gate’. Modernised narratives of ‘political correctness gone mad’ confirm suspicions that UEASU is out of touch and incapable of representing them anymore.
Earlier this week, UEA’s Concrete attributed the union’s drop in satisfaction to just that, referencing an ‘image problem’. While their further analysis is hardly watertight, there is a significant risk that, in the aftermath of this year’s NSS results, anger will soon be blindly hurled in entirely the wrong direction at great cost to all students. Students’ unions continue to be painted as the enemy despite having primarily existed to defend students from exploitation. Right now, we are being exploited, and to identify union dissatisfaction as the sole reason to be angry after NSS 2016 is counterproductive and dangerous. We are being exploited through rising fees and the NSS is part of the problem.
in the aftermath of this year’s NSS results, anger will soon be blindly hurled in entirely the wrong direction at great cost to all students
By most, the NSS is framed as a way for students to voice their concerns about the quality of teaching, and a way to let their university know if student’s think they’re getting their money’s worth. In theory the NSS benefits prospective students looking for high-ranking universities. The NSS is a major component of most university league tables, allowing students to easily sort the wheat from the chaff and focus on getting a place at ‘top-tier’ universities. It promotes competition among universities, supposedly with the intention of driving up standards.
Unsurprisingly, the theory doesn’t match the reality. Universities do not look to the NSS for constructive criticism, for places where they might make genuine improvements to the education they provide. Instead, they twist and manipulate the figures in an intense period of post-NSS spin, with marketing teams digesting the figures to find some way of packaging themselves as a number 1 institution. All this data does is provide universities with an excuse to drive up prices as well as unjustly punish staff and cut low performing courses or modules when they fail to meet the standards of a survey that is rigged against them.
One of the most worrying effects of the NSS is the effect it has on BAME lecturers. Typically, universities with a higher percentage of ‘ethnic minority lecturers are rated lower than white lecturers’ due to unconscious bias by students. This means that universities with fewer white lecturers will be punished financially when these universities inevitably move down league tables due to unconscious bias within the NSS results.
The knock on effect is doubly worrying too. University prestige has significant implications for the job prospects for its students, as many employers maintain manufactured prejudices about the quality or value of qualifications from certain institutions. Institutions with more diverse academic staff tend also to have more diverse student bodies, with higher proportions of BAME and working class students. Lower NSS scores and by extension lower league table performances therefore impacts the ability of graduates to later find work that is rewarding or well remunerated.
The NSS gives students the illusion of power whilst simultaneously being complicit in the marketisation of education
A new and extremely pernicious aspect of the NSS is its role within the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). As part of the Conservative government’s Higher Education White Paper published earlier this year, universities who ‘score highly in the TEF would be allowed to increase undergraduate fees beyond £9,000 a year’. It is the TEF that is feeding further tuition fee rises and as one of the metrics that ‘excellence’ will be measured against, if we engage positively with the NSS, we are handing our universities the opportunity to raise our tuition fees. The NSS gives students the illusion of power whilst simultaneously being complicit in the marketisation of education that always leads to a system that is inaccessible to working class students. The NSS is part of this government’s politically motivated attempt to price the poorest students out of higher education, and it is our responsibility to start resisting.
At this year’s NUS National Conference we voted to boycott or sabotage the NSS. We need mass engagement in this strategy otherwise we too are complicit in the TEF agenda to raise fees. We need to hit back at the NSS hard, and to do this we must stand with our unions, not against them. All students now have a decision to make. Will we comply with the NSS and allow ourselves to be plunged further into debt by this government? Or will we fight back and start resisting? Student debt is at a record high, and it’s time to take radical action.
Header image via uea.ac.uk