Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin students protest increased tuition fees in November 2015 against furtherJoe Robinson

Last week, the University Council and the General Board voted to implement Year Two of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in Cambridge. Part of wide-scale higher education reform, the effects of this policy will mean further commodification of higher education by ranking universities against each other and allowing higher-ranked institutions to charge higher fees.

In ranking universities, the TEF relies on questionable metrics, such as the methods used by the National Student Survey (NSS) to measure ‘student satisfaction’. Aside from the frameworks used, the long-lasting impact of a ranked university fee system is obvious: the TEF will decrease the number of working-class and black and minority ethnic (BME) students applying to university while also fundamentally altering access to graduate funding.

Student unions across the country, along with the NUS, have been vocal in their opposition to what is one of the most dangerous changes to higher education in a decade. CUSU have a mandate to oppose the Teaching Excellence Framework, voted in because of the concerns raised by individual students and undergraduate college committees.

But as a student body, we do have some leverage. The successful nation-wide implementation of the TEF is largely dependent on the results of the National Student Survey. A survey sent out to all third-years before they graduate, it will ask them to rank their institutions in a number of core categories of student satisfaction. This data will then be collected and stored in order to rank the universities officially.

“This is all based on outdated measures that will lead to ‘elite’ universities alienating minority students”

The NSS will become a way to determine which universities can increase their fees. It will allow TEF to decide which universities can charge premium. This is all based on outdated measures that will lead to ‘elite’ universities alienating minority students. A boycott of the NSS provides an opportunity for students to resist this change.

On the 19th April, the NUS passed a motion to mobilise students to sabotage or boycott the NSS as part of a wider campaign against rising university fees. They understand that taking direct action against the NSS as a student body is an effective tactic in rendering the results less than credible, and could be a significant step in stopping TEF. If the scores of the survey are directly related to the ability of universities to raise tuition fees, then wrecking the survey’s data will have a direct impact on the effectiveness of the TEF and the government’s efforts to increasingly commodify higher education. According to the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, if the response rate at a university is below 50 per cent, the NSS scores will be rendered invalid and the data won’t be used.

A high-profile university such as Cambridge having invalid scores – scores which are ordinarily so integral to the implementation of the framework – would be highly damaging to the wider scheme. In destabilising one of the central measures for the Framework, a boycott would mean the government would be far more likely to enter into negotiations with NUS and student unions about higher education changes.

In Cambridge, if the University is worried about the results of the Survey, they may be much more likely to address the concerns many of us have raised, and transparently report why they have decided to enter into the TEF. While reputation might be important, implementing this framework and disregarding the concerns of students are not positive attributes of a university, and need to be addressed.

We have the potential to disrupt the the government’s higher education reforms through en masse direct action. In Cambridge, a boycott of the survey could mean we have leverage to address the multiple concerns that students, staff and academics have raised about the changes being currently implemented. 

More broadly, a strong boycott in Cambridge will have implications on wider higher education reforms across the country that unfairly target minority – especially working and ethnic minority – students. Boycotting the NSS is one important and direct way that we as students can have our say, which is why we believe that all students at Cambridge asked to fill in the survey should decline to do so.

The government’s agenda for higher education, and Cambridge’s participation in this agenda, will have unequivocally negative effects on prospective students, current students and graduates, and it is our responsibility to stop these changes from happening