Having a student rep in the room isn’t enough

Callum Perry is  the Undergraduate Education Officer at UEA Students Union

This has been a busy and stressful year for student representatives. Covid-19 has brought rapid change wrapped in uncertainty, which has demanded more need for student voice with equal speed.

There are those that have struggled with the tech, or have lacked access to it at all. Others have lost out because they don’t have the space or connections that facilitate access to the online pivot the sector delivered.

There are students on practical courses that have not had the experience they needed, and students that have struggled without access to labs and drama studios.

There are those that have had to work over online collaborative platforms to access academics for support in assessment, and those that have needed extensions for deadlines.

There are students that have needed more mental health support and have struggled to make the best of a situation where there is little access to facilities and university life as we knew it.

Yet while many students struggled, some students from different groups were able to benefit from a more digital delivery by being able to access content when is suitable for them – participating more comfortably due to being online or working in recorded sessions around other commitments.

Collective mind reading

We discovered much of this – and much more – through survey data. Both local and national surveys have generated alarming headline figures on deteriorating mental health and student satisfaction with their experience.

But has it been enough to shed a true light on the struggles that students have been facing? Most SUs would argue that usually, when a problem arises, we hear from students that aren’t happy pretty quickly, and this can make it life difficult if the institution doesn’t see it in the same way or if those issues haven’t yet shown up in the data.

And the mismatch between what students are saying and “the numbers” isn’t just a lag issue. Often data that is obtained on student success and attainment will show a different picture to the conversations that SUs are having with the student body. If students are unhappy about something, is it wise to ignore it if fixing it wouldn’t address their educational outcomes?

Traditionally, the way we’ve tended to address the issue with survey data as student voice has been to argue that students themselves need to play a role in commissioning it, interpreting it and explaining it. If only 20 per cent of students think their assessment is fair, we need to talk to them to understand why. But is there more to student representation than just “explaining the numbers”?

Complexity

I’ve been a student officer for almost two years now, and I’ve been trying to think about how student representation for an Education officer like me works.

On one level it’s simple – we obtain information from students and their reps throughout the year, synthesize the issues, raise them with university managers and academics and communicate back to students what can or can’t be done about them.

We also try to explain the numbers. We see surveys and data that tells us students’ opinions and outcomes, and we try to develop an understanding for managers and academics why things have turned out the way they have.

But neither of those things actually require a student rep to be elected or to be in the room, even if the room is virtual. Educational outcomes are co-produced, both individually and collectively – not by universities and their staff examining students like rats in a lab, but by engaging positively as partners. So if it is important that students are in there, can we work out why – and then improve what we do as a result?

Needs to know

To answer this, I’ve been playing with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – a motivational theory in psychology that’s a five-tier model of human needs, often shown as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

I think that successful student engagement – both individual and collective – is a complex layering of factors similar to that in Maslow. The question is how are we providing all students with the right environments and tools to successfully engage with conversations around teaching and learning – from the individual right through to the rep on academic board or senate?

  1. Being present: Are we approaching our students, and have we made ourselves known? Do they know how to reach us?
  2. Providing the platforms: How are we offering and enabling students to engage? Are those things accessible? And equitable?
  3. Praising work: How are we acknowledging the work students do? How are we empowering them with their voice?
  4. Opportunities to develop: Is there an opportunity to for students to see growth through what they are doing? Do they understand the impact of their engagement for their skills development?
  5. Contribution: If all factors are considered, authentic student engagement will follow – characterised by a confidence in being an advocate and an understanding of why feeding back is vital to help “feed forward” – both as an individual and a representative.

Ultimately, this mix of questions concludes that “being in the room”, having an SU rep on a panel or asking a group of students from the seminar is simply not enough for us to create a culture of partnership and move towards a model of co-creation in education.

So if just permitting or listing student engagement and representation opportunities or structures isn’t enough, what is?

Understanding

We should start by re-imagining the relationship between universities and students in a way that places an emphasis on understanding – students of how “their” university works and the pressures it is under, and understanding on the part of universities on student views and the realities of their lives.

Of course there will be moments across an academic cycle where institutions and SUs might choose to disagree and work separately on an issue, but a reciprocal depth of understanding will underpin this, helping to generate a trusted and transparent relationship that empowers students from all corners of the learning journey to engage, regardless or them being a rep or an officer.

Student Partnership Agreements present an excellent opportunity to build strong foundations for this. Done well, they can generate clear processes for building that understanding, and clear commitments to students around areas that are important to them, and create tangible actions as to how they might contribute whilst evidencing the role of the SU as a driver.

When we talk about “embedded student engagement” and the difference there might be between that and a model that has a light-touch “student in the room” approach, what do we mean? For me it means that an attempt at co-creation happens from the moment a course is being designed to the review cycle through years of delivery.

When consultation is needed with students, there need to be effective ways of reaching out to students that are not limited to those we are most in contact with – and we should always aim to never depend on a sabbatical officer to comment. Leading student representation is not the same as collective mind-reading, and a tick-box approach (“well the SU was there”) will only help higher education generate bad decisions.

With a dramatic shift in process and discussion on next academic year happening or imminent, this is a great chance to challenge ourselves and colleagues on how effective our student engagement is. University leaders could:

  • Write a list of all the ways their university engages with students – then remove all of those ways that describe a student just being in a committee or having a representative from the SU in a group. This will then leave them with the ‘problem’ areas, or in other terms the areas that are hard to reach but would reap the most in terms of meaningful student insight.
  • Prioritise student feedback in the same way they would collecting feedback from staff or writing up plans.
  • Think about the hierarchy to authentic student engagement – How could we find new ways of including students at all levels of curriculum design? Could there be a new student role to support course review? Can we create more localised methods of sense checking your students through social media?

None of this should undermine or be done separately to the SU – and in most cases the SU ought to play an important role in the development and delivery of new approaches. But the more we support SUs to do this, the more representative, authentic and effective a contribution will be when we do turn to the rep in the room and say “what do students think about that?”

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