Motion 201: The NSS boycott or sabotage

Wednesday 27-07-2016 - 10:55

Last week has seen a number of universities announce a rise in tuition fees and the HE Bill pass its second reading in parliament. NUS believes these reforms are not in students’ interests and teaching quality isn’t driven by market competition.

At this year’s NUS National Conference delegates passed an amendment to Motion 201 in the Education Zone debate. This amendment called on NUS to determine the most effective strategy to either boycott or sabotage the National Student Survey in Spring 2017 in order to challenge the government’s higher education reforms.

NSS Consultation

At NUS National Conference in April 2016, delegates passed an amendment to Motion 201 in the Education Zone debate. This amendment called on NUS to determine the most effective strategy to either boycott or sabotage the National Student Survey in Spring 2017 to challenge the government’s higher education reforms, in particular the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the link between TEF and an inflationary rise in undergraduate home tuition fees. 

NUS National Conference is the sovereign body of NUS, and is the key mechanism through which NUS member students’ unions set NUS policy. The wider motion 201, proposed by NUS HE Zone, set out general opposition to the marketization of higher education; and arguments in favour of this amendment largely centred on the fact that other tactics were seen to have been exhausted, leaving a need to escalate to more confrontational tactics. 

In order to act on the resolutions in Motion 201, we are consulting our members to get their views on the most effective strategy for a boycott or sabotage of the National Student Survey. For such a campaign to work, we need a strategy that students’ unions feel confident in supporting and actively engaging with on their campuses. 

Below, we set out the rationale for the campaign and the list of actions which are available to employ. This consultation will be used to inform the decisions about how we implement the policy passed at National Conference.

Why target the National Student Survey? 

The NSS has its supporters and it has its critics. We know that students’ unions have benefitted from the bargaining power that NSS results can give and, on its own, it can be an effective tool for the enhancement of the student experience. We are also aware that in some cases the results can be linked to SUs’ funding. 

Unfortunately, the NSS has always had other purposes. The government have long advocated its use as a tool for driving up market competition between universities through benchmarking and league tables. There’s also the fact that the data can be easily manipulated and many questions remain about its robustness. 

Now, the government wants to go a step further into marketisation by using some of the results in the NSS as measures of teaching quality in their new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The TEF will rate an institution’s teaching quality on the basis of a set of core metrics, one of which will be the results of NSS questions 1 to 12. These questions are in the sections used to assess teaching, assessment and feedback, and academic support. 

The key issue for many of our members is the link between TEF and allowing home undergraduate tuition fees to rise with inflation above £9,000 a year. The government have announced that they will be using the RPIX measure of inflation, which will be set at 2.8% for the first fee increase, meaning that students in 2017-18 could be paying £9,252 in their first year of study with further increases in subsequent years. Inflation projections suggest that students could be paying over £11,800 by 2026 on this basis. 

By using NSS results in TEF, the government are effectively using student feedback as a mechanism to raise tuition fees. We believe that student engagement should be used for the enhancement of provision for other students, not as a means for government to raise fees and increase market competition.  

What options are available?

Option 1: Full NSS Boycott
In this option, unions would campaign to encourage students to boycott the NSS entirely, which would mean that students actively refuse to fill the survey in during the Spring 2017 survey window. 

Additionally, a full boycott would gain strength by unions publicising each refusal to fill in the survey, making their institution and the government aware of the numbers of students who are actively protesting against the use of NSS to drive up fees. This is likely to be done prior to the end of the survey window to give government and institutions a chance to reconsider their decisions about the TEF.

By not filling in the NSS, protesters are not changing the results of the NSS. However, the NSS requires institutions to meet a minimum response rate of 50% of eligible students in order for the results to be deemed valid for use in benchmarking (and subsequently in the TEF metrics). 

A boycott could potentially, if unions engaged a considerable portion of the student body, drop the response rate to under 50%. Institutions will obviously have their own methods of incentivising students to take part in NSS which may become an obstacle to this goal. A medium sized institution with 1,500 final year students would need at least 300 students boycotting the survey to reduce the response rate below 50%, and these would all have to be students who would have filled in the survey had it not been for the boycott. A large institution of 3,500 final year students would need at least 800 students boycotting the survey to achieve a response rate lower than 50%. 

Option 2: NSS Sabotage
A sabotage works differently to a boycott in that the campaign encourages students to fill in the NSS, but to deliberately answer the questions in a certain way to disrupt the results. 

There are different approaches to a sabotage, but our research suggests that the most simple and effective method would be to encourage students to answer “definitely disagree” for all of questions 1 to 12, whilst allowing students to fill the rest of the survey in truthfully. 

As with the boycott, a sabotage can show the level of dissent if unions collect information on the number of students taking part. Students can sign up in advance to sabotage the NSS, showing the government and their institution the level of disruption likely to occur and offering them a chance to change or negotiate over their decisions. 

Unlike the boycott, a sabotage directly impacts on the results of the NSS. Marking questions 1-12 with “definitely disagree” will pull down an institution’s satisfaction score on these questions, which is the percentage of responses agreeing with a particular statement. 

A meaningful change to NSS results would usually need to involve a shift of at least 6% in student satisfaction, as the scores in the TEF are averaged over three years of NSS results, and year-on-year the results tend to need to fluctuate by about 2% in order for them to be considered meaningful and not down to sampling error. 

However, to give some indication of how many students would be needed to sabotage the results of the NSS, a moderately sized institution with around 1,500 final year undergraduates would require between 60 and 70 saboteurs to shift results by more than 6%; a large institution of 3,500 final year students would require around 150 saboteurs. 

There is a concern that Ipsos Mori, the polling company that conduct the NSS, might be able to filter out sabotaged results, therefore not having an impact on the final scores.  This is not a certainty and it is important to remember that creating this extra burden in administrating the NSS is an outcome in itself and the more responses they have to remove, the weaker the survey becomes.

Option 3: Abstaining on NSS Q1-12
A third option involves students filling in the survey, but refusing to answer questions 1-12. 

Students have the option in the NSS to tick a “not applicable” box rather than answering a question. If students opted to do this for questions 1 to 12 they would not affect the overall results for these questions, but their abstention on the question would be officially recorded and be noted in the results as published by HEFCE each year. 

The result of abstaining is similar to the boycott in the sense that it allows students to refuse to take part in providing information for the TEF, and subsequently having no involvement in the raising of tuition fees. However, it also allows students to complete the rest of the survey that isn’t involved in the TEF so that they can still have their say on their experience at their institution and can provide feedback about their level of satisfaction with their SU via question 23 or its replacements.

To many students, the issues covered by questions 1 to 12 will be key concerns. However, implementing this option doesn’t mean NUS or participating unions aren’t concerned about these issues. NUS has published many tools that would support you to campaign on these issues even if these questions were boycotted for one year. We are also working on alternative ways of capturing feedback on teaching and learning, which is a pertinent point to all options.


There may be other options available to students and their unions in terms of campaigning activities regarding the NSS and its relationship with the TEF. We consider the above options most realistic in achieving the objectives set out by students in motion 201. However, we welcome thoughts from our members on any other activities they may wish to explore, such as raising awareness with students of the use of NSS in TEF and the link to fees, not helping the institution to advertise the NSS, lobbying vice chancellors and MPs directly on the issues, among others.  



Students needed

Direct impact on NSS results

Full NSS Boycott

Encourage students to refuse to fill the NSS, so that it will not reach the minimum institution response rate of 50% and be deemed an invalid benchmark

300 students boycotting (medium institution 1,200 final year students)


800 students boycotting (large institution 3,500 final year students)


NSS Sabotage

Encourage students to fill in the NSS but to answer  “definitely disagree” for questions 1-12 only, to disrupt the results by 6%

60-70 students boycotting (medium institution 1,200 final year students)


150 students boycotting (large institution 3,500 final year students)


Abstaining on NSS Q1-12

Encourage students to fill in the survey, but refuse to answer questions 1-12, opting for the “not applicable” box. Their abstention would be officially recorded and noted in the results published by HEFCE.

300 students boycotting (medium institution 1,200 final year students)


800 students boycotting (large institution 3,500 final year students)


We would like to collect your views on the options we have set out above and find out if, and how, you would like to get involved. Please fill in the consultation survey here. We are inviting responses until 17 August.

Consultation meetings will be held as an opportunity for student officers to hear about the different options in more detail; to discuss the implications, opportunities and risks involved; and to start to develop plans for the next steps, as we co-create our campaign.

Two meetings will take place in London, from 11am-3pm on 30 and 31 August. You can sign up for one of the consultation meetings, including any dietary or access requirements, by completing the survey or contacting

Do get in touch with if you have any other questions at this stage.


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