2018 was CUSU’s second year of running the NSS Boycott. Although many joked that asking students not to fill in a survey was the easiest form of activism, the under 50% fill-in threshold was only just reached after a tireless campaign by last year’s sabb team. This year built significantly on that success achieving an institution-wide response rate of just 17.3%. This is a massive drop from the 68% fill-in rate in 2016, with similar figures in the preceding years.
A 50% swing over two years cannot be dismissed or written off as ‘student apathy’; this is student anger. Anger at a system that leaves some in tens of thousands of pounds in debt while others leave university debt-free. At a system planning for differentiated fees, meaning that those with more money will be able to afford a better education. At a system where students are charged 6.3% interest on the loan most had no choice but to take out. And crucially, anger that our voices and experiences have been weaponised to develop this marketised system, where students are consumers and customers, rather than active partners in their education.
When we decided to renew the NSS boycott this year, I could see three broad aims that I wanted the campaign to achieve: maintaining student awareness around the marketisation of Higher Education, refusing to be complicit in this marketisation, and sending a message to the government that our opposition to Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was not going away.
The UCU strikes in Lent Term did a lot for keeping the conversations about marketisation going. The increased visibility of these issues counteracted the fact that it’s easy for students to see what is happening to our universities as inevitable, rather than an ideologically driven project of marketisation which can and should be resisted. What was happening to our staff gave context to the challenges that we face as students, and emphasised the fact that our fates in a marketised system are intrinsically linked. I wanted the NSS boycott to give the student body the opportunity to make a statement that our education system was not going to be marketised using our data or in our name, that we would not be complicit. Students consistently showed that they would not be silent during the strikes through rallies, occupations, and teach-ins, and have done so again by boycotting the NSS so decisively.
The third aim was the one I felt it would be hardest to achieve. How possible would it be to have a direct impact on government policy? This question was answered for me when Graham Virgo, Cambridge’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, stated that he was going to have a meeting with Sam Gyimah, the Universities Minister, the week after the 2018 NSS results were internally confirmed; and that he would be bringing the issues caused by the boycott directly to the minister’s attention. This is exactly the response that we were hoping for. We caused enough problems for Cambridge, that now it is a problem for the government. Cambridge has a disproportionate amount of sway in national politics, something that those of us who campaign here must use to our advantage, and we managed to get the message of our strengthening opposition to the TEF directly to the desk of the Universities Minister. We have made TEF an issue that cannot be ignored. It is students who have brought this about, and it is students who must continue the fight.
A concern about the NSS boycott that students have raised is that by not filling in the survey we may be losing an opportunity to feedback to the University, and improve our education. However, the NSS survey cannot be looked at uncritically as a mechanism of student feedback. Even outside of its involvement in the TEF, the NSS has long been a controversial metric, opposed by many in Higher Education. UCU and the NUS both held longstanding policy before TEF was even conceived of, with the UCU calling it ‘Bad for students, bad for staff [and] bad for education.’ The inaugural chair of the TEF panel himself, Chris Husbands, has previously stated in reference to the NSS that he does not ‘think student satisfaction is an accurate proxy for teaching quality.’ The NSS is not and has never been a tool for pedagogical change and progress but simply a political vehicle, and therefore we must resist implications that by boycotting it we deny the university or ourselves the chance to improve our experiences of teaching and learning.
It is evident that we cannot rely on the University or the government to provide us with mechanisms for meaningful feedback, or that the feedback we do provide through these mechanisms won’t be used to turn this university into an ever more exclusive club with an ever more exclusionary price-tag. I would encourage any students who are looking to contribute to worthwhile discussions about their learning experiences at Cambridge to fill in the Big Cambridge Survey here.