By now, tens of thousands of students the length and breadth of the country will have received emails inviting them to take part in the National Students Survey, commonly known as the NSS. But they’re also likely to have been the recipients of another email, from their students’ union, advising them that the National Union of Students is boycotting the survey, and that they should do the same. This comes in response to its proposed use in the Teaching Excellence Framework, where the NUS, despite claiming to nod its head vigorously in agreement with the principles, has taken umbrage with the implementation. But, as with so many of its increasingly petulant campaigns, the NUS is here working against the interests of its own members.
The Teaching Excellence Framework – TEF, for short – was a pledge in the Conservative Party’s 2015 general election manifesto, which, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, aims to “recognise and reward excellent learning and teaching” (without going into excruciating detail, universities providing high-quality teaching that secures their graduates the most remunerative employment will be allowed to raise their fees). The NUS’s response raises a few valid objections – but they’re trifling, and in no way warrant its thermonuclear reaction. In truth, their objection is motivated not by a desire to promote the interests of their members, but instead by solidarity with other trade unions in the education sector, principally the University and Colleges Union.
In attempting to forestall the implementation of TEF, the primary tactic of the NUS has been to threaten a boycott of the National Students’ Survey, the longstanding annual survey of final-year students, which provides many of the key metrics that would now be used for evaluating universities under the Framework. It’s unclear how many students, who are in no way obliged to listen to their union, would take part in this, though it seems unlikely to be significant, given that TEF will not affect them.
Indeed, it will only financially affect students from the 2017 intake and on, who will see their fees rise by a relatively minimal £250. And the fact is this: no matter how much the critics of the Framework protest that its priority is to pave the way for increases in fees, not teaching quality, the two are inextricably linked, and this is why universities are signing themselves up to TEF en-masse. Quality education does not come cheap – and, far from deferring to the nefarious desires of those pesky graduate employers, allowing universities that consistently deliver employable graduates to raise their fees introduces a long-overdue flavour of competition into a sector that has been deprived of it for far too long.
Of course, the NUS and their chums the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) insist that this “marketises” education; they linger on the word as if it were something of menace, as opposed to the basis of our economy. But burst out of the trade-unionist bubble, speak to regular undergraduate students, and it will swiftly become apparent that their primary fear is not some abstract terror about competition within the higher-education sector, but instead a much more real one of their ability to engage with the inevitable competition outside it. Students do not sit in seminars, fretting over the minutiae of their tutor’s contract; they’re far too busy worrying about how whatever they’re learning will help them get any contract of their own, in a graduate employment market that seems more cutthroat with each passing year. For students, TEF really proposes nothing scarier than a rise in fees in line with inflation, but, of course, there remain those who put ideology before starkly simple reality.
Joshua Forstenzer, writing in the Guardian in February 2016, argued that TEF “betrays an ideological conception of students as consumer-producers locked into a life of competition through self-interested accumulation.” He further objects: “The consultation assumes that students have certain preordained interests (in acquiring certain skills, obtaining employment and ultimately earning enough to repay loans) instead of bolstering the democratic voice of students in shaping their universities.”
To translate: TEF is unacceptable because it prioritises employability over ill-defined but trendy perceptions of higher education’s main purpose; and this undermines students’ right to democratically define their own university experience. However, to the taxpayer – who must ultimately front the loans that pay for this education – it’s unlikely to seem unreasonable for the government to prioritise the long-term serviceability of these debts. Even less concerning to the taxpayer will be the government’s refusal to sign over matters of such complexity and seriousness to the democratic will of a series of organisations neurotically preoccupied with dismantling the country’s nuclear deterrent.
That band of organisations includes the NUS, individual students’ unions, and the UCU, which represents lecturers and other professionals at UK universities and colleges.
This provides a neat segue to the real motives for the NUS’s tub-thumping: its alliance with UCU, and its commitment to opposing any market-based reform of higher education whatsoever, whether it benefits students or not. Go to any student protest (as I did, in November, to photograph it) and the two will be practically indistinguishable; their banners are different, but their chants are the same. On the issue of the Framework, the interest of the two unions’ members are not just different, but fundamentally opposed: it will drive a harder bargain for students, at the expense of staff. Despite this fundamental divergence of their memberships’ interests on the matter, however, the two unions somehow managed to issue a joint statement in response to it.
This quite remarkable joint enterprise demonstrates that the NUS’s opposition to TEF is ideological, and nothing more; their members would do well to take note of the fact that the trade union purporting to represent them is now effectively allying itself against their interests. The Teaching Excellence Framework will improve quality and value for students, and if they can tune out of the NUS’s constant scaremongering over the “marketisation” of a sector that most want to prepare them to compete in – you guessed it! – a market, they may well be onto a winner.