Student engagement remains a major theme of focus in global higher education.
There has been a continued growth in attention to discuss, research, run initiatives and create new opportunities relating to “student engagement” which collectively has considerably grown over the past decade.
In 2007 the QAA proposed that students become members of institution review panels. Since then educational developers have been talking about ensuring students are engaged in their learning and teaching enhancements and their wider HE journey, and latterly, NUS has placed pressure on universities to open up their processes, committees and opportunities for students to become engaged in decision making.
More broadly several sector developments such as tuition fee increases, an increased emphasis on student outcomes, a focus on student satisfaction and many successful local and national attempts to embed students in the enhancement process has led to a vast array of conversations, projects and initiatives carrying the title of “student engagement”.
Students at the centre
What is impressive is that although the sector has faced local funding issues and numerous new agendas and pressures which could have each been drastic distractions, institutions and their students’ unions in the UK HE sector have still kept an eye on the goal of student engagement. The sector “bit back” at attempts to rid the UK of student engagement in the quality code, and forced a return of student engagement in the new quality themes despite efforts to move away from seeing students as partners in their education journey. The current crisis of Covid-19 has called for an even greater need to focus on online student engagement as retention becomes a focus for all institutions globally.
When we look back over the 15-20 years, the idea of focusing on student engagement began with theories and ideas, by scholars such as George Kuh, Mike Neary, Alison Cook-Sather and Colin Bryson, who encouraged the HE sector to work with students as partners, to place students at the centre of everything we do to improve engagement in learning.
Policy makers and students’ unions followed, lobbying their universities to open their doors to student involvement in decision making at all levels, increased investments in representation and continuously reflect on the way we run HE. Managers of universities, largely, favourably accepted and endorsed student engagement as an alternative to viewing students as consumers by inviting students onto their boards and funding new initiatives such as Student Fellows Schemes, Student-Led Teaching Award and Student Experience staffing.
This all created great interest in HE’s staff body from diverse staff, from academic to professional services, driven by new projects funded by funding bodies (such as TSEP, REACT and Wise Wales) and a new networking body for those interesting in researching and advancing student engagement (RAISE).
Providers prioritised student engagement over all areas starting with learning and teaching, then faculties and now professional services, establishing student engagement strategies, student centred strategies and most recently, student engagement analytic systems.
Student engagement ambassadors at our institutions who could be academics, student experience leads, student leaders or professional service champions, have questioned, researched, evaluated and shared practice created three international journals on student engagement and numerous books, reports and publications creating a wealth of reading on the topic.
So student engagement has continued to grow – and in 2016 we saw the UK’s first “Senior Lecturer in Student Engagement” job advert go live on Jobs.ac.uk, giving justification for student engagement as a discipline within wider higher education studies.
The above image outlines student engagement’s journey in our sector across the last decade and in 2017, the University of Winchester had just completed the HEFCE funded catalyst project on evaluating student engagement practices (like University of Exeter’s Change Agents), and questioning who these initiatives engaged.
The project team noted a distinct lack of staff development opportunities in the sector for those tasked with student engagement following their sector travels and Winchester was keen to build on the projects momentum. A year later, the first Level 7 Postgraduate Certificate in Student Engagement in Higher Education began, attracting 10 students in the first year from across UK HE. In 2019, the programme attracted 17 students and the University approved the writing of a second year of the programme to make a Masters in Student Engagement.
35 students have enrolled across the two academic years this September. The blended learning programme consists of intensive two-day retreats of workshops, followed by online lectures for the HE professional interesting in student engagement. The programme attracts SUs, academics, professional services, leaders and early carrier staff who are keen to both develop their knowledge, gain a qualification at Level 7 and learn from the wider scholarship in this growing area. Many have reported the confidence the programme brings in their work, the opportunities to read around an reflect on their own practice and upskill their work through academic assessments.
The programme gives learners the opportunity for HE professionals and academics of all levels to learn from sector experts and Winchester’s recently established Centre for Student Engagement with internationally recognised visiting fellows. Students taking the programme will also apply their knowledge to challenging contexts of engaging students in higher education in a contemporary setting, and will be able to evaluate and directly plan practice to ensure student engagement practices are relevant to the module themes in diverse settings with varied stakeholders (diversity, democracy, scalability etc.).