The Society for Research into Higher Education

Student voice in UK Higher Education politics: NSS, TEF and boycotts

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by Camille Kandiko-Howson

Higher education policy is increasingly becoming metrics-oriented, with rafts of self-declared ‘wonks’ joining researchers, academics, policy officers and journalists. Although national quantitative datasets have been  running for over a decade, relatively little research has come from them, particularly compared with the thousands of publications using the US National Survey of Student Engagement. However, as metrics have risen in importance, the national datasets are gaining prominence in policy and research. The UK National Student Survey (NSS) dominates because of its use in national league tables, and from 2016, its inclusion in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). On the plus side, many institutions have used the data for improving the student experience, but it is also decried for driving a consumer-approach to higher education.


Although positioned by government as offering students a voice, the NSS was boycotted by Students’ Unions when it first launched. It was subject to a National Union of Students (NUS) campaign boycott again this year due to its inclusion in the TEF and the associated link with rising tuition fees. With around 25 Student Unions’ participating in the boycott, 12 were ‘successful’ in failing to reach the 50% response rate reporting threshold. However, at many more institutions students within individual courses boycotted, and the drop in total number of responses, although slightly down from previous years, was masked by the large increase of participating institutions, largely from private providers.


So was the boycott ‘successful’? The Department for Education has stated that no university will be negatively affected by a student boycott of the NSS. This, conversely, means that no institution could benefit, over others, because of their NSS scores. Data is aggregated over three years for the TEF, so one year off could possibly be accounted for. If the NUS is to continue the boycott, missing data over three years would undermine the current set-up. However, given the small-scale differences across the data, any question of data quality can undermine faith in the exercise, which has already received a good bashing in the House of Lords debates on the Higher Education Research Bill (now Act).

What next?

In a recent UUK blog, Will Hammonds asked if the politicisation of the NSS through the TEF could undermine any positive benefits it brings to the sector. The Chair of the TEF, Chris Husbands, also raised questions of the efficacy of the NSS data in the TEF. So far the NUS has not stated their stance on the survey for 2018, but the boycott is likely to stay in students’ minds, harming response rates and possibly lowering scores as well.

The dangers of repurposing existing metrics highlights the importance of developing new ones. Teaching intensity metrics are being trialed this year, in addition to on-going pilot projects on learning gain This is a ripe opportunity for higher education researchers to help develop valid and robust metrics, and shape the future of UK higher education policy.

SRHE member Dr Camille B Kandiko Howson is a Senior Lecturer and Academic Head of Student Engagement at King’s College London and convener of the SRHE Student Experience Network.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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