A group of students have launched a campaign calling for the boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS) in Durham, which is open between 6th January to 30th April 2020.
The NSS is a survey that UK universities send to final year undergraduates in which they are asked 27 questions to rank various aspects of their course. These results form one component used to rank universities in league tables.
In order for results to be deemed representative, the NSS requires a minimum 50% participation rate. If departments do not meet this threshold, the NSS results would be deemed invalid for a year.
The major arguments in favour of the boycott are that it feeds into the marketisation of higher education. Some studies have linked NSS scores to increases in tuition fees, whereas others have suggested that poor scores can mean cuts to courses or departments that universities worry are unpopular.
“The university does not listen to student voices.”
Furthermore, there are doubts about the efficacy and fairness of the survey. Some studies have suggested that NSS scores incorporate unconscious biases against non-white staff.
Those who defend the survey argue that it gives students the chance to say honestly what they liked and did not like about their courses. The scores can therefore help departments and the SU make improvements.
In turn, this can give prospective students the opportunity to make informed decisions about where and what to study.
The UCU is following a similar course to the students. The Union sent an email to its members asking them not to advertise the NSS to students.
Declan Merrington, the chair of the Durham NSS Boycott, said that “many of Durham University’s current policies hurt students, staff and the community.
“The university does not listen to student voices in common rooms or the SU assembly. But it cares about the NSS. This makes it a perfect time to launch a boycott.”
Merrington argued that the NSS boycott formed one component of the Durham Student-Worker Solidarity group’s campaign to “stop unpopular staff restructuring, address the gender pay gap, support UCU in its national dispute and tackle student rents.”
Merrington encouraged students not only to boycott the survey, but also to write to their department heads to say they intend to do so. “This will place pressure on the university and benefit students.”
The NSS has also come under fire from Sam Johnson-Audini, the SU undergraduate officer, who wrote an article in January entitled ‘Why we won’t be promoting the National Student Survey.’
The NSS promotes “unhelpful competition between universities.”
In the article, they presented some of the benefits of the NSS, writing that “we want the University to be asking students what they think about the things that matter to them, and teaching, student support and resources are certainly things that matter!”
However, Johnson-Audini concluded that metrics such as the NSS promote “unhelpful competition between universities who are striving to be the best according to these narrow measures, instead of investigating whether every university provides an educational experience that supportively challenges and inspires its students to reach their full potential.”
An email sent to third years from Professor Alan Houston, the Vice-Provost (Education) at Durham, encouraged students to complete the survey. Houston detailed how the results were scrutinised by the Senate, governing Council, and academic staff from across the University.
In addition, the email provided some evidence to demonstrate how the NSS has made a difference, for example in increasing students’ data storage and expanding “student involvement in decision-making.”
Photo: Anna Marshall