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The time to act is now – boycott the NSS

Wednesday 23-11-2016 - 15:23

NUS will be organising for a nationally coordinated boycott of the National Student Survey - sign up or show your support here.

There’s a myth popping up that NUS does not have any contact with the Westminster government. That we’re not engaging at any level with them on the HE Bill, and even if we are, that we’re not doing enough to stop the TEF, fee rises and protecting students from the excesses of the market through lobbying alone.

But not all myths become reality as we showed last Tuesday, when the government published a number of amendments to the HE Bill that directly responded to our asks – in particular, four key changes driven by NUS, including student representation on the board of the Office for Students, increased student protections, increasing the transparency duty placed on universities to monitor access and completion, and postgraduate research support.

Make no mistake, these revisions to the Bill came directly from NUS working with the Labour shadow cabinet to submit amendments – and they didn’t happen by accident. They happened because of the tireless work from students’ unions and NUS in challenging the HE Bill.

Because there’s one more myth that has to be busted – that this government cares about students. In parliament on Monday, pushed on the link between TEF and fees, Jo Johnson MP said that he had heard no voices in the education sector speaking out against the link between TEF and fees. Either Johnson can’t hear our voices, has forgotten meeting us to talk about the TEF or he doesn’t see us as part of the system.

Not content with dismissing our existence, Johnson has also conceded that these metrics are not perfect and are instead part of a “pilot”. If this doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about this government’s attitude to students I don’t know what will. An experiment with our education, warned against by experts, which will skyrocket fees, change the face of the education sector and potentially close institutions down.

So, if I sound a bit weary when you speak to me, it’s because I am. I’m tired of the infighting that has at times overshadowed the work of unions on the Bill and fed up of how students have been ignored and sidelined by the government.

But there’s one thing I’m never going to tire of – working with students and students’ unions to take on the government when it comes to the HE Bill.

Since the start of the parliamentary process, we have had 15 out of 17 amendments from our original proposals tabled and debated. To put that into context, the vast majority of organisations would focus on just one. On top of this, we’ve worked to secure two additional amendments from outside our original proposals, both of which were debated at committee stage too. In total, NUS had 37 mentions at committee stage – second only to the Open University – and more than UUK, the Russell Group and Million Plus combined.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Since the third reading of the HE Bill was announced, just two weeks ago, 655 people have used the NUS campaign site to lobby 337 MPs, including 180 Conservative MPs. And that’s just through that website. It doesn’t include the lobbying day that students’ unions took part in, countless phone calls and meetings that officers have arranged with their MPs, and the 100s of tweets. 

But still, the government hasn’t budged on its plans on the Teaching Excellence Framework and fee rises despite that being a core concern for students and something we’ve lobbied very hard on.

We have now passed the third reading and report stage of the Bill, and as we suspected, its full speed ahead for over £12,000 fees by 2020, for the entrance of unregulated private providers into the sector and for the Gold, Silver and Bronze of the Teaching Excellence Framework.

We now have just one governmental avenue left to take on the Teaching Excellence Framework – The House of Lords. And take it on we will, with support, briefings and campaigning guidance to enable you to lobby peers to try and stop the TEF in its tracks.

But time is running out, and the government has left us with no choice. We cannot stand by and allow student feedback to be used as a sly and underhand way of raising tuition fees. That is why today, as voted by National Conference and outlined previously, NUS will be moving to the next stage of our campaign, and organising for a nationally coordinated NSS boycott.

NUS will never be less relevant than if it fails to stand up to government attempts to impose tuition fee rises – and we have a responsibility not just to fight, but to lead the way.

An article in yesterday’s Guardian revealed that the TEF is not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination. Faced with an unsettled future outside of the EU, thoughtless plans to cut international student numbers and a Teaching Excellence Framework that has very little to do with teaching excellence, universities are unsure whether they want to take part.

As institutions stand on the cusp of refusing to comply with the government, the threat of action against the NSS puts NUS, students’ unions and students in a stronger position than ever.

With a spotlight aims at the TEF and its metrics, reductions in student participation within the NSS send a clear signal to institutions and to the government – we will not be complicit in raising the fees of future generations.

We can get bogged down in statistical arguments but the biggest threat to implementing the TEF is a wholesale rejection by the very people it’s meant to serve. The power of a boycott is not only in reduced fill out rates, it is in the power of the collective. The TEF is not a success story when students walk away.

So how much more are we are going to take? What will it take for us to act?

After years of NUS championing a partnership approach to student engagement, I am deeply, deeply worried that SUs are scared of taking part in the NSS boycott for fear of punitive measures from their institutions. Angry because it’s entirely unacceptable, but truly concerned about what this means for the future of the student movement, if we have found ourselves in a place where standing up for our students means being silenced with threats.

Students’ unions must never be put in a position where they cannot represent the interests of their members for fear of losing their influence. It makes a mockery of any illusion of partnership work, and it leaves us disempowered not only as individual unions but as a national movement.

The time to ruminate is now coming to an end, and now it is time to act. This campaign isn’t simply about leveraging the one metric we control in the TEF, but taking a stance for the future of Higher Education in this country.

Sometimes, we need to be lobbying inside parliament. At other times, we need to be rattling its gates. With a Bill as expansive and wholesale as the HE Bill, we have needed a range of approaches and tactics in order to ensure that we can look back and say we took every chance to stop these reforms taking place.

There are two times that you should take on a battle – when you can fight it and win, and when you have no other moral choice but to do so. When it comes to the NSS boycott, this is an opportunity to do both. I believe this bill will be damaging. I believe that it's worth fighting. I believe we can win. Do you? Now, it is time to boycott the NSS.

Sign up to show your support or join the boycott here.

Over the coming weeks, Sorana will be uploading a series of blogs from students’ unions about the Teaching Excellence Framework and the NSS boycott, as well as providing resources and materials for unions to organise on their campuses. If you have any further questions, please e-mail sorana.vieru@nus.org.uk

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