Academic staff must stand in solidarity with each other to make the NSS boycott effective

The UCU and the National Union of Students both support the student boycott of this year’s National Student Survey (NSS). This boycott has been called in opposition to proposals in the Higher Education Bill to use data from the NSS to inform scores in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which in turn will be used to raise tuition fees.

FACE wholeheartedly supports this student-led boycott. It is the only effective strategy left to block the flagship policy of the Higher Education Bill and the serious threat it poses to our working conditions. There is, however, a great deal at stake here.

To win, the boycott cannot be limited to a few departments or institutions, but must be as solid and as wide as possible.

Not only that, but low participation rates for the NSS have in the past been used by university management to discipline departments and justify cuts to their internal budgets. If the boycott is not implemented consistently and effectively across departments and all higher education institutions, then there is a risk that small departments with exceptionally radical student bodies will be the only ones affected and management will use these low participation rates to punish them. We have a collective responsibility to each other to ensure that all members in our respective departments are fully aware of the boycott and know how best to support it.

What you can do:

  • Display these posters and flyers in your department: https://www.ucu.org.uk/boycott-the-nss.
  • Inform all your final year students about the boycott, and let them know that is supported by both the lecturers’ and the students’ union. (The official advice from the UCU is that although members are not allowed to impede students who wish to participate in the NSS, they can let students know about the UCU’s national and local position in support of the boycott. Moreover, if you are told by your Head of Department or line manager to refrain from informing students about the boycott, you should ask for the person concerned to put the instruction in writing and then immediately seek the advice of your UCU branch, obeying the instruction until further notice is given.)
  • Invite your local student union to speak about the boycott for five minutes at the beginning of all final year lectures and meetings.
  • Call a meeting of all UCU members in your department to ensure that everybody is informed about the NSS boycott and feels supported to follow union policy.
  • Ask your UCU branch president to write all Heads of Departments and your Vice Chancellor informing them of UCU support for the NSS boycott and requesting that they respect members’ right to follow official union policy. They should demand reassurance that no disciplinary action will be taken against members for doing so.. They should also demand that no undue pressure is placed on students to prevent them from participating in the boycott.
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FACE welcomes decision by NUS this week to go for an all-out boycott of the National Student Survey

All university workers need to get behind the student boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS) if we are serious about defending public higher education.

Why? Because the results of the NSS lie at the heart of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the flagship policy of the Tory government’s Higher Education Bill and its wide ranging agenda of privatisation and marketization.

The TEF claims to measure teaching excellence using big data such as scores in the NSS and graduate employment and earnings. Not only will this be a wholly blunt tool with which to measure real teaching quality, it will also place further bureaucratic burdens upon over-stretched university staff, distracting us from our job as teachers. Its real purpose is to enable an increase in student fees – institutions which score highly in the TEF will be able to raise tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-19, followed by even higher level fees in 2019-20.

The goal of the NSS boycott is to wreck the data upon which the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will be based. Even before the TEF is introduced, the government and HE managers already rely on the NSS as a crucial tool for the management of higher education and the disciplining of university workers. So an all-out student boycott of the NSS is the most effective strategy we now have to gain the leverage we need to stop the TEF and the higher education reforms as a whole. The joint NUS-UCU demonstration against the Bill on 19th November is most welcome, but given that the bill has already passed its second reading and is supported by the Tory majority in the Commons, we need a plan for action to halt and reverse the reforms if we cannot prevent their parliamentary passage. We can make it impossible to implement, and force the government to backtrack, through the collective action of staff and students in our places of work and learning.

The UCU national congress passed policy to support the boycott and individual UCU branches have also passed motions welcoming the NUS action. In doing so, university workers have taken a bold step, given how much pressure is currently placed upon us to ensure high student participation rates in the NSS due to its importance in university league tables. Often, poor results or low student turn-out for the NSS at a departmental level have led to staff having budgets cut or face bullying from university management. Only a mass nationwide boycott can ensure that low NSS participation rates in 2017 won’t be used against university staff.

We therefore need our union to put its words into action and offer practical and effective support for its members during this boycott.

This should include:

  1. Making clear to all members that we have the right to say no to advertising the NSS. We also have the right to speak out against university money being spent on bribing students to participate in the survey.
  2. Demanding that NSS results in 2017 not be used as the basis for determining university internal budgets and allocating resources between departments.
  3. Demanding that no disciplinary action be taken against apartments with low participation rates in the NSS, on the basis that the results for 2017 are illegitimate.

More info: Check out NUS’s announcement and the call to action from the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts

Responding to the select committee on TEF

This morning the department of Business Innovation and Skills held a Q&A session on the proposals to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework, outlined in the recent Higher Education Green Paper. In this session the select committee put questions to NUS president, Megan Dunn, UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, Professor Jon Scott (Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Leicester,) and Stuart Cannell, (Student reviewer with the Quality Assurance Agency).

(You can read more about the Teaching Excellence Framework here)

The Q&A session kicked off with a very crucial question: what problem is the TEF trying to solve?

According to Universities minister, Jo Johnson, the answer to this question is ‘patchy’ teaching quality. The solution? Allow universities to charge more if they score well according to set of metrics calculating graduate earnings data and student feedback.

Thankfully, this was challenged by the panel supplying evidence on a number of levels (not all of which will be discussed here), but most notably by offering the suggestion that the terms and conditions of teachers might be a better place to start. The responses of the select committee to this evidence offered an interesting insight into how little casualisation is widely understood to be the context for talking about university teaching.

UCU’s Sally Hunt was clear to set this out, pointing out to the panel how in the context of a total of 200,000 staff on ‘teaching only’ contracts in the sector, 100,000 of these were on fixed term or hourly contracts. That is, 50% of that workforce is employed through insecure and inadequate terms of employment, despite often being fundamental to the delivery of core teaching. This is in comparison to a total of 6% rate of casualisation in the wider labour market (according to the ONS). This is also a drop in the ocean compared to the overall rate of casualisation across teaching and research.

The response to this? It seemed that there was a dawning realisation that this might have a negative effect on people’s ability to do the kind of job that universities are demanding of them.

This is an important development, since previously casualisation was not a key part of the discussion. Yet, the relationship between gender, race and disability in relation to casualisation was still not given the prominence it deserves.

The second point of revelation was in relation to the conditions for postgraduate teachers, who are working during the course of the PhD (GTAs). NUS president Megan Dunn brought this up (which is a promising development given her lack of awareness of this issue in relation to the TEF previously).

The committee seemed to ignore the question of pay, in favour of focusing on the lack of training that GTAs received.

Professor Jon Scott suggested that GTAs received training, support and pay for preparation: an assessment that many of the activists in FACE would disagree with, particularly where training is unpaid and yet mandatory. Likewise, a select committee member raised concerns about how regulating pay for postgraduate teachers might damage the ‘free exchange of knowledge’. This lack of interest in pay, in favour of notions of ‘professional development’ is indicative of the kind of liberal rhetoric used to mask the exploitation of postgraduates behind idealised notions of academic experience. Such a position is strikingly similar to the mentality surrounding the exploitation inherent in the internship model adopted in other sectors.

An encouraging sign was the general consensus that linking the TEF to a raise in tuition fees would undermine its stated aims of widening participation and improving quality.

It is important, however, to qualify this with the bigger picture. The TEF must been seen in the context of the HE green paper, which introduces a whole raft of measures designed to turn university education into a commodity. It would be very naive to suppose that the stated aims of the TEF have anything to do with the thinking behind its implementation.

Casualisation is an inherent feature of the neo-liberal economy, and as such an unavoidable fact of the marketisation of education. The ideology supporting the modern privatised university requires a dispensable and atomised work-force.

So, while it is good to see these panel members drawing attention to casualisation, we should be under no illusions that fighting against this trend requires anything less than fully opposing the marketisation of HE in the first instance.

You can read more about FACE’s analysis of casulisation in HE in the Guardian article here.

This piece was written by Jess Patterson, a organisor within FACE