By Alex Powell
So, it’s that time of year again. The time of year where university finalists are asked to submit to the NSS (National Student Survey) and evaluate their university experience. This seems harmless enough. Indeed, the ability to criticise your institution in a way that might improve the experience of others can be portrayed as being positively progressive. However, this year, the data has a far more sinister usage. Because this year, NSS data is to be used in order to make decisions on whether or not to allow certain institutions to raise their fees. This change is coming about through the implementation of the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework), and Tory reforms to higher education more generally.
NUS are campaigning strongly against the TEF, and as part of this are calling for a boycott of the NSS. UCU have also spoken out in solidarity of moves to boycott the NSS, though this has gone mostly unnoticed. However, this alone is not enough, and opportunities for solidarity have been missed. Reforms to higher education do not only impact students. Lecturers, academics, and all university staff face ever greater precarity as higher education is attacked by economic rationality. This is the same economic rationality which has seen the rise in fees and the lifting of the cap on student numbers. For staff, it has led to an increase in lecturers being offered short-term and temporary contracts. The Sports Direct model is being imported into higher education. In addition, we are seeing universities ‘restructured’ resulting in countless redundancies among both academic and support staff.
Considering how interdependent the struggles of lecturers and students are, it is surprising that there is not more active solidarity between us.
This affects students. Lecturers on short term contracts, or who are paid by the hour, have less incentive to put in the additional time and effort that makes a great educational experience. They also have less incentive to form effective relationships with students. This, of course, damages their ability to provide any form of pastoral care, or to pass on their own advice and experiences. If lecturers simply took a ‘work to rule’ approach, doing simply what they are contractually obliged to, so much of what students take for granted would end. All those power-points, helpful handouts, invitations to ask for help and feedback exist because many staff are going above and beyond what they are paid for. Simply put, changes which harm the situation of academic and non-academic staff also harm students.
Similarly, the changes to student culture and the approach to education that the consumerisation of education has led to has had a negative impact upon lecturers. In an environment where they are increasingly judged by their student’s results, we are seeing a shift of student culture. The marketisation of HE is changing the way students work, leading to greater expectations upon staff from both students and institutions. This is bad for both lecturers and students. It is bad for lecturers because at the very time their performance is coming to be seen more and more as reflected in their student’s results, they are being asked to do more and more of the work; this is because, quite justifiably, students paying higher fees expect more from those teaching them. It is also bad for students, as the expectation of greater provision limits the development of research skills and causes severe anxiety for those who find themselves struggling to keep up with the workload.
Considering how interdependent the struggles of lecturers and students are, it is surprising that there is not more active solidarity between us. We have already seen how strong we are when we work together at demonstrations such as the one jointly called by NUS and UCU on November 19th. Specifically, it is a wonder and disappointment that lecturers and students haven’t come together, more vocally and more openly, in the campaign to boycott the NSS. This is a missed opportunity. While the NUS campaign to boycott the NSS has seen some degree of success, it is ultimately likely that enough people will complete the NSS to give it the legitimacy required to justify the fee rises.
However, if students and lecturers had come together to speak out against the instrumentalisation of the NSS, much more could have been achieved. Had staff chosen to speak out more vociferously against the NSS, to ask their students not to sign it, the legitimacy of the survey could have been called into question and, perhaps more importantly, a signal could have been sent to the government. A signal that students and staff are united in their rejection of the government’s higher education reforms.
To end on a more positive note, there are already emerging examples of the power of solidarity between staff and students. Last year, while completing the final year of my undergraduate degree, I was involved in a series of protests against administrative changes to the university. These changes proposed to restructure the university’s administrative staff in a way which would effectively leave nothing but a highly centralised administrative structure lacking in any subject-specific expertise. However, by working together staff and students were able to secure concessions which, at the least, limit the most damaging effects of the changes. Had it been either only the staff or only the students who had been protesting, the management would have been able to play us off against one another, to undermine the protests. But by working together, we were able to achieve concrete results.
We must learn from experiences like these. Going forward, it is imperative that we seek solidarity with all those impacted by changes to our society. These changes impact us all, and it is only by working together we can effectively combat them.