NUS will be holding a national ballot on conducting a risk assessment. What a joke

NUS will be balloting all members on whether it should risk assess the only serious proposal for defeating the higher education reforms and defending public universities.

According to an announcement from the Chief Returning Officer and a blog post by the University of West London Students’ Union President on Friday, officers at 38 students’ unions have demanded the NUS ballots all members asking whether it should publish an equality impact assessment and a risk assessment of the proposed NSS boycott.

Those proposing the ballot have suggested that our movement tries lobbying government instead — as if that hasn’t already been happening. This is bureaucratic cowardice par excellence.

In April, National Conference passed policy mandating the NUS to organise a nationwide boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS).

Activists proposed the boycott as a way to force concessions from government in negotiations over the higher education (HE) reforms. The NSS is a feedback survey filled out by final year undergraduates right across the country. Because the NSS plays a central role in government plans, a boycott will give students serious leverage.

According to government, the NSS provides a way of comparing the student experience across universities. In reality, though, mature students and students from minority ethnic groups are under-represented; dropouts are not represented at all; Black and Minority Ethnic academics systematically receive lower scores as a result of unconscious biases; and the weight of evidence suggests that female academics also receive systematically lower scores for the same reason. In short, the student experience cannot be accurately measured by a tick-box exercise.

The real purpose of the NSS is to forcibly create a viable market in higher education. It plays a key role in league tables, which create the impression that universities offer comparable ‘products’ which the ‘customer’ can choose between. It will also play a key role in the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework, which will increase fees and distort teaching. For a taste of what’s to come we can look to the US, where some universities have a marketing budget almost a third bigger than their teaching budget.

That is why students are calling for a boycott: it is the only clear way we can directly disrupt government plans. For the past six years, we have tried lobbying MPs and lobbying government. We’ve tried petitioning Vice-Chancellors. We’ve tried national demonstration after national demonstration. This is why not only militants, but also moderates, are demanding direct action.

Why, then, are some student leaders demanding a risk assessment? The charitable explanation is that they are afraid to take action: in case they are attacked by University management, in case their budgets are cut, in case the action fails. The other explanation is probably also true: that many are opposed to the growing power of the Left in the NUS, and want to stop it by bureaucratic means. Either way, it is pure cowardice.

Risk assessments should be used to protect the health and safety of workers. Equality impact assessments should be used to protect against discrimination. Neither should be used to prevent effective action by a union. If trade union leaders pushed for a risk assessment to evade strike action, we’d rightly be incensed.

Public higher education is being dismantled. The risk assessment is a joke and a distraction. Those demanding it are failing students, staff, and society as a whole. It must be opposed.