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27th January 2017

NSS boycott threatens student economics society campaign

The Students’ Union’s boycott of the National Student Survey is causing issues for the campaign tactics of the ever-growing Post-Crash Economics Society

The University of Manchester’s Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES) has argued that the boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS), which is backed by the NUS and the University of Manchester’s Students’ Union, threatens one of their key methods of campaigning.

PCES encourage economics students to mark economics teaching down in the survey, hoping that the downward pressure from the Vice-Chancellor’s office on to the department will force some change.

Cahal Moran, the Chairman of PCES, arguing against the boycott of the NSS, said: “I would prefer students to fill out the NSS with a critical mindset than to boycott it”, with Hannah Dewhirst, Head of the PCES Conference Committee, adding “If the point of the NSS is to gain student feedback then I think it’s more effective to use it to give really negative feedback/highlight problems with the course. Also, not boycotting the NSS doesn’t mean we can’t simultaneously continue to campaign for another, better, kind of student feedback mechanism”. However, Moran did later recognise that a boycott could be justified as in his view, “the department clearly haven’t listened to the NSS”.

The boycott of the NSS is in response to the government’s plans to allow universities to increase tuition fees from September 2017, depending on their rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The TEF will use the results of the NSS to calculate the ratings of each university. According to their website, the NUS is “campaigning against any rise in fees and calling on the government to abandon its plans.”

Mr Moran, speaking to The Mancunion, said he recognises the fault in the TEF creating a situation where a boycott is considered an option. He says that, “ideally the TEF would not have to exist, but as things are hopefully it will shift the focus away from the TEF and mean universities have to respond more to the demands of students.”

The society aims to change the way economics is taught at university. In their quest to do so, they are attracting more attention than ever in the national media.

One major development has been the publication of a new book last October, ‘The Econocracy: The Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts’. Moran describes it as a summary of “our main arguments about the state of economics and why it’s important for everyone that it should be changed.”

It was this book that saw The Financial Times photograph members of the society. Moran calls this “reinvigorating,” adding that,“often it can feel like little is changing in the day-to-day grind of campaigning, but things like the release of the book can help to keep the conversation about reforming economics education going, and hopefully to inform it a little.”

It is this use of the word “grind” that perhaps is most telling. Despite the media attention, very little has changed since PCES started in 2008. Moran blames “institutional inertia” for this lack of change, alongside “narrow demands of modern top-down research frameworks,” resulting in little plurality in the curriculum, even at the biggest university in the UK.

In spite of this, there have been some victories; BEconSc students can now opt to do a dissertation, as well as the introduction Diane Coyle’s course on the economics of public policy, which Moran is a tutor for. He admits that, “there is still a long way to go, but PCES are pushing for new modules on topics such as economic history and inequality,” in order to make the curriculum more relevant and engaging.

PCES is at interesting point in its recent history, with pressure mounts against the TEF and with an NSS boycott, PCES may need to find new ways to campaign for the change they want.

Responding to these criticisms the University of Manchester Students’ Union Exec team said: “The boycott is a tactic to influence the Teaching Excellence Framework and National Higher Education policy. We completely understand that students also use the NSS to critically analyse their course and to lobby the university. We would at any other time encourage them to do this.

“However there is a one time opportunity to make our voices heard over the TEF which will change Higher Education forever. In order to allow students to still have a voice, we are also launching the Manchester Student Survey which is similar to the NSS but will be used for genuine feedback to improve our education. The survey will launch on the 30th January and we encourage all student to fill it out (as it’s more valuable for ALL students to have their say, not just those who are about to leave), and especially final years, INSTEAD of the NSS.”

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