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Does the ‘Yes to the NSS Boycott’ side actually want to win?

Image credit: 'Vote YES to the NSS Boycott'
Image credit: 'Vote YES to the NSS Boycott'
Image credit: ‘Vote YES to the NSS Boycott’

Whether awash with banter, balderdash or bitter disagreement, student politics always proves to be interesting, particularly to quiet observers. Taking hold of campus ever-so-slowly is the referendum, awkwardly promoted by the Sabbatical Officers, on whether the University of York Students’ Union (YUSU) should promote a boycott of the National Student Survey, continuing the mission started by the National Union of Students at its Brighton conference last year.

The Facebook antics of the pro- and anti-boycott campaigners bring back faint memories of the turbulence that was the NUS affiliation referendum not too long ago. But things are much quieter this time. The referendum is not expected to reach the quorum required for a legitimate result: most students, even final-year undergraduates, for whom the survey is intended, still aren’t entirely sure about what the NSS actually is.

The anti-boycott side has taken a largely serious approach to the debate, firing ‘mythbusters’ against their rivals. There’s room for humour, though. Echoing the endless references to Monty Python’s tirade against the ‘cruelty’ of the Romans, we’ve still been treated to a clip from Father Ted.

Jump over to the pro-boycott side, however, and you find the issue at hand discussed with levity. A fake Tweet from Barack Obama supporting the boycott? “The Teaching Excellence Framework is one of the biggest threats facing young people today,” the former President tells us, apparently. “Vote YES on #NSSboycott to oppose these reforms!”

What about memes? The pro-boycott side has happily shared a meme to say that our enemies are not “Muslims or Christians or Judaism or atheism” but the NSS. Things could only be worse if the campaigners responded to criticism with memes – which they have done.

There are references to the Teaching Excellence Framework aplenty on the pro-boycott side – and it’s to be expected: the main thrust of the argument for boycotting the National Student Survey is its much-debated relationship with the TEF, a “wrongheaded and destructive attempt to force the marketisation of higher education and raise tuition fees even further!”

Following the NUS’s campaign material, the TEF is informed by three key elements: the results of the National Student Survey, the rate of drop-outs per university and graduate destinations. “Students have no collective control over the former two but we can make the student satisfaction metric unusable,” the pro-boycott camp tells us. It “will make TEF increasingly unworkable as a reform, and will push back against the government’s plans to make higher education into a market where Universities [sic] can greatly increase fees.” Boycotting the survey is “the only way,” they say in a graphic, for students and staff to “disrupt” this agenda.

Is it? Some have been quick to point out, or report as I have, that the weight of the NSS results has recently been reduced. But really, it’s irrelevant: there is nothing to stop the TEF relying on two metrics over three. If the NSS were to be useless to the Department of Education, it can be forgotten. The current government hasn’t much of a good record for listening to the public’s concerns – think of the junior doctors…

So, boycotting the survey boils down to a not-in-my-name gesture. “By boycotting the NSS, you are not allowing your voice to be used to damage the reputation of your institution, devalue your degree and raise fees,” states the NUS. Choosing not to answer the survey means your answers will never be used as a justification for increasing tuition fees, it seems; but if yours aren’t used, somebody else’s will be. Dodging the survey on purpose achieves little more than a sense of smugness. Roll on, TEF.

Boycotting the NSS is a way of simply shaking your fist at Whitehall from far away. Vote for the boycott if you think tuition fees are bad, it seems to say. Vote for the boycott if you think the TEF is bad! But everyone I’ve met, pro- or anti-boycott, thinks the TEF is bad. Most, if not all students involved in the referendum want to keep fees at £9,000-a-year or even have them lowered, perhaps to £0 annually.

Memes, mock Tweets and an unaddressed major leak in the main argument: it makes me wonder whether the pro-boycott camp really mean what they say.