The Government’s Secret Plan to Raise Tuition Fees — and Get Students to Help Them

‘Marketisation through the back door’ is how Sorana Vieru of the NUS describes the National Student Survey. Despite years of Union support for the survey, posters in UCLU bars and cafes now call on students to ‘boycott the NSS’. Along with 24 other student unions from across the country, UCLU is boycotting the survey in an attempt to stall a rise in tuition fees.

The government argue that the NSS provides vital feedback on the student experience, allowing universities to target reforms and improve accountability. Universities have long found the feedback provided by the survey to be vital in targeting reforms and improvements.

The NUS argue, however, that the survey is now being used to increase tuition fees by stealth. The survey results will be used, along with drop-out rates and graduate salaries, to rank universities as ‘gold’, ‘silver’ or ‘bronze’ under the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). If the government’s Higher Education Bill passes, universities that participate in the TEF will be able to raise tuition fees higher than £9,000, with the amount depending on what rank they are awarded.

The NUS argue that a boycott is necessary because the government has failed to listen to their concerns. Last year’s NSS, to which over 70% of students responded, is already being used to create the first ranking for the TEF. Depending on when the Higher Education Bill gets through Parliament, people applying to UCL for this September could face significantly higher fees.

Rose Buchan, a second-year student at UCL, sees the TEF as part of a broader picture within higher education. ‘With rising rents, shrinking bursaries and the abolition of maintenance grants, the NSS constitutes another way in which lower income students are being pushed out of UCL’.

The NUS are staging the boycott because the government cannot use the NSS data to rank universities if the response rate is under 50 per cent. Since eligibility to charge higher fees depends on an institution’s ranking, the NUS argue that a successful boycott will mean that UCL’s tuition fees remain at £9,000.

The government argue that the NSS has long been valuable for both students and universities alike. They claim that the survey provides institutions with the information necessary to ‘enhance the learning experience’ while helping prospective students make ‘informed decisions about where and what to study’. Universities Minister Jo Johnson argues that the changes are meant to increase competition within higher education, but the NUS have called attempts to increase competition between universities a ‘failed experiment’. They argue that the government’s plan to create a free market for higher education threatens to exclude students from low-income backgrounds while saddling those who can attend with unsustainable debts.

Student unions have criticised the government for failing to engage with the concerns of student groups, and obscuring the real purpose of the NSS. The survey, which is being conducted by Ipsos Mori, is sold to students as an ‘opportunity to share [their] experiences’. The only mention of TEF on its website is a link at the bottom of the FAQ section, which sends the reader to two obscure policy documents that make no mention of tuition fees. It is not surprising, then, that one survey by Save the Student found 87% of students to be unaware that the TEF is being used to justify fee increases.

The NUS have also criticised the plans as poorly thought out and motivated primarily by a desire to increase fees rather than improve accountability. The NUS argue that the NSS is not a suitable measure of ‘teaching excellence’ because it only measures student satisfaction. Others point out that the 50% response rate is a very low bar for survey data, and would make the results statistically dubious.

Universities have responded to the boycott by promoting the NSS much more actively, posting flyers in student bars and offering university merchandise as incentives to participate. Mark Leach, editor of WonkHE, has warned that the publicity around a boycott may inadvertently provoke greater marketing by universities and greater publicity for the survey, increasing response rates.

Opponents of the boycott point out that the government would only need to amend the Higher Education Bill in order to lower the threshold below 50 per cent. While those boycotting hope that this would inflict at least a serious delay on the government’s plans, this change could potentially be introduced as a parliamentary motion, without the need for a time-consuming debate. Since the Higher Education Bill is still passing through the House of Lords, the government could potentially do this before the Bill becomes law, in time for this year’s applicants.

Since response rates are not reported until well after the survey is complete, the full effectiveness of the boycott remains to be seen. The survey is due to close in April, with students hoping to inflict an embarrassing defeat on the government by reducing response rates below the 50% threshold. This would delay the planned hike in fees — a significant, but temporary, victory.

This article is due to be published in Pi Magazine.