The role of students in regulation, notes from Scandinavia

A few years ago Paul Greatrix wrote a Wonkhe article titled Students and the HE landscape  – other models are available, reflecting on how the 2015 UK Higher Education Green Paper seemed in such contrast to the Swedish approach.

A few years later, and the Swedish model that Paul focused on seems to shine an even clearer spotlight on some of the debates going on here currently. Sweden shows the potential for building student representation into the heart of the regulatory processes, something being designed for English universities right now with the Office for Students.

Students at heart

In the article, Paul pointed out that ‘while students’ unions have a key role in organising student representation’, and ‘the fundamental requirements of student representatives may be written into university governing instruments’, ‘nothing in UK higher education seems to come close to the formal provisions for students in Sweden’

For instance, as Paul points out, Section 7 of The Swedish HE Act has the requirement that; The students are entitled to representation when decisions or preparations are made that have bearing on their courses or programmes or the situation of students. Ordinance (2010:701).

On a recent study tour to Scandinavia, we contrasted this with the detail of the proposed educational “baseline” in the OfS regulatory framework draft, focused merely on student feedback.

There are huge differences in culture, politics, funding and history in the “Scandi” countries – but a shared concern is the student interest, and how it is represented, advocated for, protected, and promoted.

The cultural impact of the Swedish requirement was tangible, and the practical impact impressive. Discussion with students and their elected student officers in Sweden revealed that the idea embodied in their act – that students co-produce good educational outcomes both individually and collectively – runs deep into their understanding of the purpose of higher education.

Student engagement there really runs deep. Students sit on every committee, are involved in almost all aspects of HE delivery, and volunteerism is commonplace. Participation in the development of student experience is an almost universal student expectation. Rather than merely reflexively complaining about satisfaction, students know that their community and their education requires their effort, and they carry this into later life. Students know they are a critical cog in their own education, as opposed to a passive consumer of it, because of the depth and breadth of dialogue taking place between students, representatives and the institution. As such, student engagement is both a central value, and an outcome of their experience – vital to the notion that HE delivers a qualification, and instils citizenship.

Compare and contrast

We also got the strong sense that the Swedish equivalent of HERA, and the culture that it generates, means there is less need for central government regulation of universities. Ultimately, OfS should be about creating accountability for providers delivering for students at a national-, or provider-level. In Sweden, they are establishing local accountability, delivered by student representatives who can spot things national bodies never could. Capturing the lived student experience to directly influence, for example, assessment deadlines, module content, teaching environment, admissions criteria and much more. This enhancement of local representative influence is a crucial component of the Swedish model. and one which reduces the “risks” that OfS is setting out to minimise here via other, less humane, means.

The University of York Students’ Union’s submission to the regulatory framework consultation alluded to some of this. We said, for example, that if there is to be increased scrutiny of vice chancellor pay on behalf of students, it might be simpler and quicker to put an elected student on a remuneration committee than it is to design a complex code of practice. That’s why student representation needs to be a public interest governance condition. Recognising student representatives as a feature of institutional governance under wider regulation framework will ensure that institutions are encouraged to invest in and embrace the student voice as opposed to simply allocating it a seat at a table. As I look again at the Scandinavian approach, I now realise that there are many opportunities to broaden the contribution of student representatives to university regulation.

Representation and rights

We also met student representatives, and union ombudspeople, who are engaged in leading research into the Swedish student condition, advising students, and evaluating courses. Putting such feedback directly under the control of representatives has credibility and integrity. That’s why the concept of representation must become a part of the core quality code and baseline registration requirements here – even for new providers.

Another curious facet of the English debate has been the contrast between a student rights approach, with a student representation approach. “If you give them the latter”, the argument goes, “you don’t need the former”. This is demonstrated well in a Wonkhe article by Gwen van der Velden; ‘what if we were serious about students at the heart of the system?’. Gwen states that “through individualisation and the use of intermediaries, the collective student voice is – not even intentionally – disarmed. The control over the student learning experience, however, moves to the provider, be it the institutional provider of that student experience, or to the national policy level; providing the context for students’ university experience through TEF accountability and regulation.”

But there is no clash between student representation and student rights in the Scandi countries – indeed the two go hand in hand. Groups of student reps work with managers, administrators and academics, to secure and publish ‘student rights charters’, that detail student rights and their expectations of institutions. If assessment feedback is late, the ombudsperson helps you get it. The dominant talk is not of legal action, contracts or consumer law – but of a robust, assertive partnership – and one that delivers clear rights and protections to students, regardless of whether or what they paid.

Right-on

One of the finest examples we saw was at Stockholm University, where representation results in defined and quantifiable ‘student rights’, which were then enshrined within University statutes. Moving away from general principles of partnership or broad expectations, to a clear and direct definition of student rights, allows students to regulate collectively and/or independently. The Stockholm students’ rights charter covers everything – admissions, administration, course evaluation, course syllabi, disciplinary matters, examination expectations, study and physical environment, equality, and grade transfer. Under each of these categories were clear, pragmatic, and measured statements that a student could individually or collectively review, monitor, and judge. This put real power in the hands of students to regulate their own experience – without having to grab for ambulance-chasing solicitors. It emboldened their contributions in representations to the university and sharpened their ability to identify solutions to the things that frustrate and hold some of their number back.

Speaking freely

It wasn’t a promised land. A student housing crisis is biting, the estate is run-down as austerity bites, and despite HE being “free”, students do pay for all sorts of things that we take for granted as being funded by a provider. Everything from textbooks and lab coats, through to subsidised campus buses and gyms, are charged-for extras, or simply not on offer. Back home in England, we have reflected on where the OfS debate is at on the rights and representation issues. The pre-Christmas proposals were often quite reductive, and OfS, of course, takes cues from a market approach and consumer legislation. But it’s also clear that Nicola Dandridge and Michael Barber are interested in the active engagement of students in OfS’ work, and that of providers. Barber’s evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on free speech at universities, earlier this month, recognised that the OfS should not be involved in producing a single code of practice on freedom of speech, but instead supported “a group of university leaders and students’ unions producing one together”.

This is encouraging, and we would hope that as it gets off the ground the OfS thinks more about the aspects of its regulatory role that could directly engage student voice and representatives. It might also consider how we can ensure student representation is embedded in the core of providers – even the new ones – and how the sector can go further in recognising the immense value of first-hand representation, as opposed to mere feedback.

Perhaps now is the time for the OfS to create new norms in student representation, ones that enhance students’ ability to actively engage with decision making. If they get this right it will ensure that student representation is more than simply students at committees, but about the breadth and depth of engagement between institution and representatives. The creation of the OfS and the new HE regulatory framework is a chance to secure and revitalise the purpose of student representation and students’ unions. For English students and student representatives to be central to the idea that HE delivers a qualification and inculcates citizenship. If that happens maybe the Swedes will be interested in our model in return.

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