How do we make students more powerful?

We’ve talked before on the site about NSS Question 26, and the numerous limitations of the question.

There’s two theories that surround poor performance in this “academic interests” question – either the question is faulty (almost certainly true), or SUs need to get better at academic interests work. Both of these are probably variously true across SUs. But there’s a third angle to the question – how good are we at communicating the work we do in this area?

What’s the dealio?

One of the things I used to get student officers to do was do a quick eye scan of their SU website, and do what I used to call an “organisational impression audit”. The idea was to ask ourselves what impression a student might get from scanning the front page – what is the SU for, what does it believe in, and what messages does that send about the purpose of the organisation?

We know these days (and to some extent this has always been true) that students are not, generally, staring at SU webpages to get their information. Social is king – and as Team Wonkhe follows most of the UK’s SU Twitter accounts, we thought we’d update the exercise for 2019 by asking ourselves – what are the general messages being sent about SUs via this medium.

We know there are limitations to the exercise. Not all students are on Twitter. The algorithms favour engagement – and so “wallpaper” general messages aren’t favoured by comms professionals. Lots of engagement about “academic interests” probably happens on Facebook or Instagram. And yes we know that some material is “seasonal”. But nevertheless we thought we’d try to look at what’s happening on Twitter and set about asking two questions. How much “academic interests” material is appearing? And how much material makes clear to students what their rights are?

Spending ages on trains

To do this, we decided to pick at relative random 20 SU Twitter accounts. We then used Twlets to download the last 1000 tweets from all of them. We looked back to July 1st and selected the 100 tweets posted before that date- including retweets and replies. And then we hand coded every single one of them into a number of categories:

  • Representation – process: These are tweets that describe the process of representing students but don’t necessarily mention issues. For example – saying that an officer is running a committee meeting, or that the SU has a role in amplifying the “voice” of students – as well as “what officer x has been up to”.
  • Academic representation – process: In this category went anything focussed on the process of representation from an “academic interests” perspective. This might be making clear that an officer is going to a meeting, or that reps represent students/interests on courses.
  • Individual advocacy: In here went anything making clear that a student could get help or support from an SU on individual matters, with either general signposting (“if you have a problem”) or something specific (“if your results are not what you wanted”)
  • SU general: In this category we placed general information about the SU. This could include renovation work to a building, the launch of a new SU strategic plan, or an SU brand launch.
  • Events: This category included information about ticketing or social events that students could go to run either by the SU or with a partner.
  • Commercial: These were tweets that appear to be focussed on non-events sales – pizza, student storage companies etc as well as exhortations to buy a “Totum” card.
  • Lifestyle: We would call these “down with the kids” messages – “you got this” during exams, or general tips on cooking, study skills, budgeting or mental health. We also included some “dad jokes” and “puzzles” in this category.
  • Freshers: This one was self explanatory although we’ve double coded many of these into other categories. There weren’t many in the period to July 1st although that will doubtless have increased.
  • Opportunities: In here we placed daytime social events as well as anything promoting the opportunity to become more involved in sport, societies or other SU opportunities like being a Freshers Rep or Halls committee member.
  • Representation – issues and Academic Representation – issues: In these two categories we were looking for material describing issues. For example – a tweet explaining that the SU or an officer is looking at the BaME attainment gap might fall into the first category, or a tweet making clear that the SU has been raising timetabling issues for commuter students would be in the second category.
  • Rights – academic and Rights – non academic: Finally, we went on the hunt for anything that would indicate to students what their rights were in a given context. For example – making clear to students that they can expect their work to be marked and returned within three weeks, or that no student should have to live in a property covered in mould.

Of course, some tweets hit multiple categories – about a fifth of them in our sample – and if that was the case we’ve double coded some. For example – a commercial company might be partnering on student activity. Tweets about course/academic reps and how to become one for 2019/20 fall into both student opportunities and representation – process.

And the results are in

If we ran a pretty superficial reading, and regarded tweets as wallpaper and wholly representative of an SU’s comms’ output, then the results are worrying – no wonder students students don’t rate SUs highly on “academic interests” issues. Even where SUs are tweeting about representation, there is a tendency to tweet about the process or the opportunity, rather than the issues themselves. Surely we can get better at telling students what we’re doing to secure them more space, increase counselling provision or to get their exams spaced out?

But there’s another reading here that relates back to that question of rights. Less than 1% of our tweets about student rights. Surely that isn’t… right?

We’re a charity

In international development, the “welfare model” has run deep since the 20th century. Here poverty is defined as the absence of a public good or knowledge – and if an NGO provides the absent good then poverty can be alleviated and development will occur.

But that model lacks a way to hold governments accountable for their actions or inaction, fails to address governments’ inability to fulfill their citizens’ rights and constructs beneficiaries as objects of charity, predetermining their roles in a community.

Some time ago NGOs reevaluated and transitioned more towards a rights-based approach to development. In this model, instead of citizens being constructed as charity they are constructed as actors or rights holders. The NGOs’ role is to help people overcome obstacles blocking their rights. The idea is that an agency gives the population its own agency – it works on a population’s rights to improve their lives themselves.

Sometimes that’s about discovery – working out the rights that people already have. Sometimes that’s about establishment – securing new laws or policies that give people rights Sometimes it’s about defence, if people’s rights are about to be taken away, and sometimes it’s about extension – giving more or better to rights to people.

But often it’s about promotion – making clear to a population what their rights are so they can enforce them locally. This is crucial – we know from other research (for example) that undergraduate students don’t know what their rights are or what they ought to expect from their student experience in the first year, and by their third year have internalised issues like poor support or timetabling as about their own performance rather than that of the university, or the council, or the NHS.

Giving students power

Martin “Money Saving Expert” Lewis doesn’t run an advice centre, but he does run a forum, and puts out lifestyle and discounts information peppered with information about rights and how to enforce them. He also sponsors this site full of information about complaint making (including about universities). We all know that a customer being short shrift in a shop that knows their rights is more likely to get a refund – there’s a real power in people in knowing their rights – and when they’re not met knowing what they can do about it either individually or in small groups.

A wall banner at UEASU describing students’ rights on assessment and feedback

One way of reading the NSS is a statement of rights for any student on any course. Institutional policies on assessment and feedback or personal tutoring are all arguably statements of rights. Outside of real crises, how would student know about these things before their final year – how would they know that their rights are not being met if they don’t know about them? If all of the students at institution knew their rights in relation to assessment and feedback or the personal tutoring system, wouldn’t that improve SSLC meetings? Or encourage hundreds of students to raise the quality of their feedback informally, rather than waiting for that to show up in NSS, the student officer noticing and then a Pro-VC being tasked with doing something about it?

Put simply – what if there were more tweet threads like this? (it’s well worth a click through)

Maybe it’s not about Twitter – although we probably should be careful about bombarding new students with “wristband deal” tweets prior to Freshers without publishing other content about education and rights.

Maybe it’s more about Freshers’ talks, or posters, or massive vinyl banners on buildings, or how course rep training is framed. Who knows – and yes I’ve spent ages raining against “awareness campaigns” without calls to action. But if SUs could sprinkle magic fairy dust of student rights knowledge on their student population (and measure themselves on how effective they’ve been about that awareness) wouldn’t things get better – and students become more powerful?

One response to “How do we make students more powerful?

  1. This is incredibly interesting. I wonder if there is variation between Marketing/Comms teams that sit in Commercial Departments and those that sit in Membership Services

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