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Why are Oxford boycotting the NSS?

Wednesday 01-02-2017 - 12:55

In June last year, Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU) became one of the first in a growing number of unions to boycott the NSS. Eden Bailey, Vice President (Access & Academic Affairs), explains why their union decided to withdraw its support from the survey.

We voted to boycott the NSS because we are fundamentally opposed to the linking of tuition fees with ‘teaching quality’, and data from the NSS is set to be one of the metrics to be used in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

We’re opposed to the TEF not because we are opposed to teaching excellence – far from it. There are students around the country being failed by abysmal teaching standards, and that is unacceptable. Pressure on academics has meant that many are forced to prioritise research above teaching, to the detriment of students. However, the TEF does nothing to tackle this. Instead, it will lead to a culture of universities feeling obliged to invest time in trying to ensure certain outcomes of specific datasets. Graduate employment data, NSS scores, and student drop-out rates do nothing to ensure that individual tutors are providing students with the teaching they come to university for.

Instead of improving teaching, a higher score in the TEF could be achieved by admitting students from backgrounds who are statistically more likely to get higher paid jobs, or incentivizing students to fill out the NSS.

So, if the TEF isn’t about improving teaching quality, what is it about? Simply put – it is a thinly veiled mechanism designed to introduce increased and differentiated fees between institutions. The better an institution’s score in the TEF, the more they will be able to charge for tuition fees. This means that within a few years, supposedly ‘excellent’ institutions could be allowed to charge significantly higher fees than others.

The move to differentiated fees for home students across the UK is deeply concerning, and something which threatens to have huge ramifications for fair access to education, particularly here at Oxford. Students and staff alike have worked hard for decades both to dismantle damaging images of Oxford as the preserve of wealthy students, and also to ensure that it really is an accessible and supportive environment for all students regardless of their backgrounds, circumstances, or identities. Participating in the government’s shoddily constructed and disingenuous TEF threatens to undo these decades of painstaking work.

How can we honestly say that Oxford - and higher education - is open to people regardless of financial circumstances whilst at the same time we’re charging higher fees than other institutions?

Whilst some maintain that the 'upfront' cost will remain the same, given that this increase will be added to the sum of a student loan, this is not necessarily apparent to prospective students. Regardless, this is of little comfort when the final amount of loan to be repaid is completely uncertain given the government's selling off of loans and retroactively changing conditions of repayment.

As Vice-President for Access and Academic Affairs at OUSU, I’ve seen and contributed to an extensive range of widening participation, access, and outreach initiatives, into which the university invests millions of pounds (and lots of time and energy/effort) annually. However, it’s an uphill battle – certain disadvantaged groups are still sorely underrepresented at Oxford. And it is precisely those groups, including both less socio-economically advantaged and BAME students, who are disproportionately more likely to be affected by debt aversion (as NUS research has proven).

No amount of money pumped into access initiatives to try and encourage disadvantaged young people to apply to Oxford can be sure to offset changes such as fee differentiation facilitated by the TEF. Indeed, this differentiation would only exacerbate them. Having seen so many people at Oxford committed to addressing the disparities in access to education here, it is disheartening to see a government policy implemented that will fly in the face of our staunch belief that if you have the potential, you should be able to study at Oxford regardless of your background, circumstances, or identity.

We need to send a strong message to the government that we will not tolerate good quality education becoming the preserve of the wealthy. By boycotting NSS we reject the TEF, not just in principle. We actively throw a spanner in the works of a policy that will be used to damage access to education for years to come, by disrupting one of just three main metrics the TEF is set to use.

If you agree that access to a good quality education shouldn’t only be an option for those who can afford it, it’s time to act.

If your SU isn't currently planning a boycott, lobby them to do so.

If you’re an SU officer worried about losing student feedback - you can find other ways for students to feed back that might even be more relevant to your institution than the national survey.

If you're an SU officer worried about damaging relationships with your university or risking your institution being ranked lower in this year's tables - pause a moment.

The decision to boycott the NSS isn't just about students this year, but the very prospect of who can be a student in the future. By boycotting the NSS, we resist the differentiation and increase of tuition fees that threaten to make Higher Education the preserve of the wealthy for years to come. Strive for an education system accessible for all. Choose to take action now. Join the boycott.

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