A nationwide boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS) may have backfired, as early reports suggest even more students have taken part in the controversial review than this time last year.
The NSS goes out annually to final-year undergraduate students across the country, targeting a total of 431,000 people last year.
The survey is designed to provide feedback on universities and the quality of courses offered, but this year a number of top UK institutions and the National Union of Students (NUS) have staged a boycott.
As part of the Government's White Paper reforms to higher education, this year’s student satisfaction scores are to be used alongside graduate employment statistics to determine teaching quality in universities – known as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
Those that score highly will be granted permission to increase tuition fees for undergraduates above the current cap of £9,000 per year.
NUS leaders argue by giving feedback, students are forced to be compliant in the proposals. As a result, they have called on university unions to encourage members not to respond.
Writing for the Guardian, Vice President Sorana Vieru said: "The Government has left us with no choice. We cannot stand by and allow misinterpreted student feedback to be used as a sly way of raising tuition fees.
"In reality, the TEF is a tool by which to raise tuition fees, taking a poorly thought through approximation of teaching quality that Johnson himself has admitted is a test pilot, and using it to dramatically reshape the university landscape across England, with unknown economic and social impacts."
In December, the NUS said it was "delighted to see that 76 per cent of students plan to oppose the scheme, including boycotting the NSS".
According to higher education blog WonkHe, however, there is evidence the boycott is not succeeding – with some students appearing to be boycotting the boycott, resulting in the opposite of the intended effect.
WonkHe Editor Mark Leach said: “Wonkhe understands that student response rates to the survey are actually up on this time last year nationally, perhaps more than 10 per cent, and some of the biggest increases may have come from the boycott unions.
“Perhaps for the NSS, bad publicity is better than no publicity, with news of the boycott having caught the attention of many national newspapers.”
Universities have also had time to prepare for the boycott, he noted, and may have increased their promotion activity to compensate.
In a blog post, Andrew McRae, Head of the University of Exeter’s English department, said: TEF, according to NUS, is a vehicle designed to increase fees. But really it’s the opposite: TEF is designed to suppress fees.
“A boycott of the NSS will only make the TEF worse," he added. "Participation rates may drop in response to the NUS campaign, but not enough to trouble anyone at a senior level.
“Very many of us regret the state’s withdrawal of public funds for higher education, but the fact remains that, given where we are and the system in which we’re working, what look like fee rises are really nothing of the sort.”
Last year, a total of 431,000 people were invited to take part in the NSS.
Hefce, who run the survey, said different universities promote the survey at different points from the start to its completion date (January to March), making it too soon to tell how the boycott will affect the results.
The results of the 2017 survey will not be published until August.
An NUS spokesperson said: “The NSS is open until April, so any comment on numbers before then would be based on incomplete information, as you’d expect there to be peaks and troughs across the three month period.
“The fact that 25 students’ unions are boycotting the NSS shows how strongly they feel about it and we have already seen the debate around the NSS/TEF develop in response to the boycott."
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