Saturday, 1 May 2010

Scrap the National Student Survey

We've been getting emails through from our colleges and faculties, trying to get us to fill out the National Student Survey (NSS). According to the emails, yesterday was the last chance to fill it out, so maybe this post is a bit late. The price of finals revision I suppose.

Our student union (CUSU) was one of the last to agree to promote the NSS, as recently as 2008-9. Until then it had rightly regarded the NSS as a pointless waste of everyone's time. Unfortunately, CUSU have thrown out this along with most other good policies they ever had. This year, the student union at Sussex (USSU) have asked members to boycott the survey in protest at management's plans to axe 115 jobs.

The NSS asks 22 “questions” about the student experience, in the form of statements which the respondent can “definitely agree” with, “definitely disagree” with, and so on. The more banal the statement, the more likely a student is to shrug their shoulders and agree with it. (3. Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching. I guess so.) It's easy to beef up the numbers of satisfied students when you don't ask any serious questions. It is worded in such a way as to produce pointless answers. Can you imagine an exam being set up in this way? Henry VIII was a bad man. Mostly agree. World War One was caused by mischievous ferrets. Definitely disagree.

We can only ever criticise the staff, never the management. In this paradigm, anything that's wrong with our degree must be a failure of teachers. We are not asked about the content of courses or, crucially, about the nature of the university itself. Here are some examples of questions that are not in the NSS:

Has your university announced any course cuts?
Has your university announced any job losses?
What is your university's attitude to political activity on campus?
Do you agree with your university's investments in the arms trade?

The NSS is primarily a PR exercise to attract potential applicants to particular universities. It has nothing to do with students “having their say.” If universities were really bothered about that, they would democratise and “give us a say” in the running of the place. In Cambridge, there are three student representatives on a University Council of twenty-four members. They are not elected as members of the student union, but rather in separate elections that the University fails to publicise, even fails to institute an online ballot, and turnout is ridiculously low. The student members of University Council are therefore not bound by union policy and represent no-one but themselves.

A self-selecting survey is no substitute for any form of democracy. It is yet another encroachment of managerialism into the education system. It assumes that everything is basically OK apart from some tweaks that could be made here and there, and therefore leaves no room for dissent or new ideas. The final “questions” are blatantly trying to find out how well prepared we are to be funnelled into the job market. 19. The course has helped me present myself with confidence. 20. My communication skills have improved. 21. As a result of the course, I feel confident in tackling unfamiliar problems. We might expect them next year to start crapping on about “transferable skills.”

The NSS is an unrepresentative tool used by universities to foster an unquestioning, “everything is fine” attitude among students. They only want to hear our opinion as long as it mostly overlaps with theirs. They want to teach us to be managers, or workers who are sympathetic with managerial views. Scrap the NSS, democratise the university.

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