J.M. Parkins explains why the NSS might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Across campus you might have seen the posters and large looming sign (between squares 4 and 5) stating “Be Heard” with “NSS” next to it.
You might have also received emails asking you to take part in it, and perhaps even texts. While this seems nothing more than an innocent gesture, it has a sinister side to it.
The current National Student Survey is part of a trio of sources (which includes the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education Survey), used as part of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as a metric for judging the teaching standards in higher education. which means universities will be ranked gold, silver and bronze, depending on their student satisfaction and what services they offer to those students. The highest scoring universities will be offered a number of rewards. The most concerning (for us as students) is the ability to charge higher tuition fees beyond the £9,000. With this, it seems that the current NSS has more to do with enabling universities to hike fees, as opposed to judging the quality of teaching; how higher education is increasingly becoming marketised, focusing solely on business, and less about creativity and critical thought.
“It seems that the current NSS has more to do with enabling universities to hike fees, as opposed to judging the quality of teaching”
To reiterate, the NSS (and the TEF as a whole for that matter) has little to do with assessing the quality of teaching standards. Yet, despite the government claiming to be more teacher centred, this metric, and specifically the NSS, focuses mainly on student satisfaction. Surely this is insufficient – what about the degree to which teachers are challenging students to be critical and creative? Satisfaction on its own is an insufficient criterion for judging good teaching. To add to this, recent studies have shown high-grade NSS scores lack correlation with marks by students. A recent study conducted by Tim Lancaster, which focused on the NSS in relation to 28 medical schools, concluded that the results achieved by trainee doctors two years after graduation and the good results in the NSS did not correlate. He stated, ‘our results show that levels of student satisfaction in different UK medical schools, as measured by the National Student Survey, do not correlate with the performance of their graduates in postgraduate assessments’.
While this study focuses on UK medical schools in particular, and considers good exam results as a good criteria of teaching, it does gives us some indication of how insufficient current NSS model is for judging the quality of teaching, and the TEF as a whole for that matter.
Why would the boycott be effective? The boycott would be effective because it means that universities would not have a reliable feedback in order to actually judge how well a university is doing (under the TEF’s criteria). As a result, it could halt (for the time being) the government’s plans to enable universities to raise tuition fees, and show the government the widespread dissatisfaction with the TEF. The impact of this boycott has been noted, as Greg Hurst (Education Editor for The Times) stated, ‘if the boycott by the National Union of Students… gains momentum, it risks damaging the legitimacy of the government’s plans to rank universities according to standards of teaching. If any university’s response rate drops below 50 per cent, its returns are not counted’. This gives us an early idea of how truly effective this movement can be.
One might ask, “why can’t we just put low scores?” While it would seem reasonable for students to put low scores to save their pockets, it could lead to teaching staff’s jobs, and consequently our education, being at risk. As the TEF and subsequently the NSS is part of teaching staff’s contracts, low scores could potentially lead to staff being fired. Therefore, if we oppose the NSS and the TEF via a boycott, it puts the government’s program between a rock and hard place.
“If we oppose the NSS and the TEF via a boycott, it puts the government’s program between a rock and a hard place.”
It should be stressed that this is not a movement against the NSS as a whole. However, the current NSS model, along with the TEF, is terrible. If there is high-quality teaching at a university, it should be the government that provides universities with the reward, not out of the students own pockets.
So if you want to save yourselves (and the future generations of students) from higher fees, you best not give the government any ounce of satisfaction – boycott the NSS.