When course reps were invented in the late 70s and early 80s, UK universities were very different places.
In the days of typewriters, noticeboards and fixed line telephones, they were a way of gathering and organising communication between the student body and the academics who had considerable autonomy to run courses. It’s the 2020s now.
The world has changed. The National Student Survey is set to go “all years”, “all levels”. We have dashboards of data on almost every characteristic, lifestyle and demographic – that can all be cross-cut with data on access and every kind of outcome. There’s mid-module feedback and end of module feedback. Social media tells us more than ever thought we needed to know.
And we don’t even have to talk to or listen to human students any more – the signals emitted from their bodies when they enter a library or lecture theatre allow us to interpret engagement and intervene to cause it, and predict failure and intervene to prevent it. Like typewriters, noticeboards and fixed line telephones, they’re obsolete. And yet we’re finding it hard to let go.
Course rep “systems” were popular in the early days, and then flagged a bit in the late 80s until the Quality Assurance Agency gained supremacy in the 90s. The order of the day was cascading systems for assurance rather than outcomes – so of course every course should have a handbook, and a programme leader, and a rep – and SUs got money to support these systems.
But the focus on structure stopped creativity – getting the right students in the room to solve problems and be creative – to work out why students’ experiences are the way they are, not just “pass on feedback”. The “system” became more important than the “partnership”.
Now, like most of the rest of the student movement, the course rep model rests on an underpinning assumption of volunteerism – that students have the time and capacity not just to attend meetings, but gather views from students, disseminate feedback from meetings and often chase around an institution for solutions to problems not solvable by the academics in an SSLC. But for almost all of the characteristics we worry about in Access and Participation Plans, these assumptions are faulty – and we wonder why those reps turn out not to be as diverse as we’d like in aggregate. Can’t we find ways to represent students at programme level that don’t depend on their labour, but treasure it for something useful if it can be offered?
In many universities, we persist with insisting that reps are elected – sometimes by forcing parts of the university to use our election systems and not recognising reps unless they do. Our default test of legitimacy or predictor of effectiveness is “elect them”. But the purpose of elections is designed to deal with over-involvement – too many people for too few roles. If five people want to be in a room with some academics twice a term, why is only one allowed? And if one of our signals of election success is the number of candidates in contested elections (which is fair enough in sabbatical elections), why are aiming for a KPI where hundreds of students are encouraged to put themselves forward at course level only to lose and be excluded?
There’s also a terrible role mismatch. Almost all of the reps I have met this year stood because they wanted to contribute to the life of the university – running projects or events, getting stuck in in their little community. For a small number this happens organically – and for others opportunities are offered through rep events and conferences. But fundamentally, the role doesn’t turn out to be the one people really want to do. And our comparative lack of focus on academic societies – that could combine representation, social capital and careers support, as well as sophisticated input into curriculum development – means their enthusiasm is wasted.
The lies we tell
We persist with some extraordinary lies. We say to reps that they should gather feedback from their peers – but most never do, everyone in meetings can tell they don’t, and those that really try duplicate other surveys or research efforts. The “system” assumes that issues affecting students are mainly about course, and that anything else impacting the student experience will somehow get picked up by a “further up” committee or a bit of rep coordinator synthesis – but we know that’s not true either, and that things get lost.
The “system” also has an inbuilt tendency to promote and raise minor issues faced by the “normal” majority, ignoring major issues faced by a small number of people. We can guess, on average, in a given year, the sorts of things that an “average” rep representing 200 students where just 20 are international, 10 are mature and 30 are BaME will raise – and it’s not the major barriers faced by international, mature and BaME students. Occasionally an international, mature or BaME rep will be elected – and they will be asked to contribute to every university working group under the sun.
Like much of what we call “representation” or “advocacy”, the other people in the room have a different assumption to the student rep. They often ask a student for “the student view”, but there was barely a “student view” when HE was homogenous, let alone now. Some students think they’re there to “raise problems”, but find a system that doesn’t want them to or support them to. Few reps really know about academic procedures or student rights, and why would they? Meanwhile, most sit on “consultative committees” populated by people who don’t really want to be there and often don’t run courses. Why aren’t there fewer students who are on the actual school, course and programme boards themselves? Why on earth do SSLC’s even still exist?
And because representation is about “improvement”, we bury real failure in the sponge of rep systems. Broken lifts for wheelchair users or feedback that’s 8 weeks late isn’t about “improvement” and “feedback”, it’s about failure and standards and rights. Why are we asking unpaid volunteers to kick up a fuss about this?
There must be another way
There’s another way. A proper system to pick up gripes. A culture of volunteerism that’s more attractive, creates less losers and never wastes a “hand up”.
Huge investment in academic societies combining community building, flexible systems of representation and care for professional development – in the subject and where appropriate relevant careers. Imagine then if every SU in the countty made a collectivist commitment to hosting a national conference of one of the academic societies that discussed common issues, pedagogy, QAA Subject Benchmark Statements, careers and campaigns like this one. How cool would that be?
Fewer, better supported actual reps that are in the rooms where decisions get made. Organisers and student ombuds in academic departments disseminating information about rights, making community happen, knowing the people and acting as informal advocates when students have a problem that’s not quite a “complaint”. Systems and structures that make the “university” a bit smaller and that kick in faster when something isn’t good enough. Any takers?