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As a collective body, students are frequently encouraged to raise their voices and to speak out on the matters that affect them.
This is no less true for medical students. In recent years we have made vocal shows of solidarity with our doctor colleagues and tutors, and sought to highlight issues ranging from tuition fees, access to bursaries and widening participation in medicine.
Yet while the power of a collective voice speaking as one is undeniable, the power of collective silence should not be underestimated.
The start of each year sees final year students across England invited to participate in the national student survey (NSS).
This year, however, the medical students committee is recommending that final year medical students do not fill in the NSS.
To appreciate the motives behind this decision, it is necessary to understand the context of recent history connected with the NSS.
Couched as a way for those at university to express their views on a variety of issues relating to higher education, the NSS has, in recent years, become explicitly linked to a piece of legislation known as the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.
Now enshrined into law, the act is itself the basis for a new ‘Office for Students’, set to formally launch this April.
The Office for Students’ stated mission is to monitor and assess the teaching qualities in higher education institutions, with gold, silver and bronze medals awarded based on performance determined by the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
Formed of six key areas, the TEF includes the proportion of a university's students going on to employment or further study six months after graduation to drop out rates.
Metrics such as quality of assessment and feedback, academic support offered to students and quality of teaching are all drawn from the subjective feedback provided by students to the NSS.
Crucially, from 2020 universities awarded gold and silver rankings would be ‘rewarded’ by being able to command higher fees than the current proposals of annual inflation-linked increases allow, with no long-term upper limit proposed.
Such was the controversy surrounding these plans that, in 2016, the National Union of Students called for a boycott of the NSS, with a view to invalidating results which could ultimately be used as a justification for raising students’ fees.
As a result of this decision, a reported 16,000 students took part in a national boycott last year, with NSS results at 12 universities consequently being invalidated.
The impact of this collective action saw plans for the immediate introduction of the higher fee rate pushed back, pending an independent review.
Looking to build upon this success, the BMA medical students’ committee voted last November to support a renewed boycott of the 2018 NSS. We are not alone in this; several other students’ unions and bodies have also taken this decision independently.
Our reasons for supporting the boycott are varied yet compelling.
Studies have demonstrated that the prospect of higher debt is more likely to dissuade students from less well-off and BME backgrounds from entering higher education.
A ranking system permitting uncapped fee increases would simply serve to further restrict access to the highest-ranked institutions among the most disadvantaged.
In addition, questions remain about the validity of TEF’s assessment of teaching and its implementation has been cited when justifying staff redundancies.
The implementation of another arbitrary framework designed to provoke needless competition between universities will shift resources from the pursuit of tangible improvements for students to tick-box ventures designed to placate or entice civil servants.
It is another step towards the marketisation of the higher education sector, and one which puts university profits ahead of the needs of the student body.
In boycotting the survey, we believe that medical students can best embody the BMA’s firmly held belief around the importance of improving access to medicine and widening participation, whilst proactively engaging in support of our consistent policy of advocating for free education.
Equally we would actively encourage medical students wanting to provide feedback on their academic experience to do so, but directly to their universities, deans or tutors.
The government does not have a monopoly on feedback and cannot be allowed to use students’ own voice to penalise us.
We encourage our members to keep the pressure firmly on the government by refusing to fill in the NSS.
Last year demonstrated that students acting collectively had the ability to make a difference on a national scale, and force those in government to take notice.
With your support, we can do so again.
The 2018 NSS is running until 30 April. If you have any questions about the NSS or would like support with promoting the boycott at your institution, please do not hesitate to get in contact with your local MSC reps.
Chris Smith is MSC deputy chair of finance
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I think that won't be so good as the author has described. For all students the main possibility to earn some grades it is the only unlimited essay. I am really grateful to the
As a 2nd year medical student from a WP background I was not aware of these suggested changes until I read this article- I'll spread the word.