How to give students and their reps more power

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s rep training season soon, and in England the new Office for Students “B Conditions” describing minimum quality that students can expect are now firmly in force.

They form the basis of a “boots on the ground” business studies inspection exercise that OfS has been talking about. They are the basis of a new investigation into grade inflation at three providers that was announced recently. They will feature heavily in OfS’ blended learning review when it comes out.

They matter, in other words.

But in some universities, you’d barely know that these new conditions had been agreed and implemented. Almost no SUs that I talk to have been altered to their existence by their university – an issue if those SUs are delivering student officer and course rep training in coming weeks.

There’s a significant number of universities that carried out programme review and re-approval panels in May and June without even mentioning the new conditions. And with notable exceptions, wider efforts to draw student and staff attention to the new conditions appear to be perfunctory, or non-existent.

On one level that potentially represents a threat. The new conditions are more detailed and in some ways more stringent than the old QAA Quality Code, and will be enforced by a regulator more determined to expose, condemn and “root out” than a team of collegiate colleagues from the rest of the country.

They are universal, represent a hard minimum for all programmes, and cover everything from staffing levels to hidden course costs and from student academic support to adequate independent study space – and that includes just before Easter.

Do people know?

I’m not convinced everyone knows that every programme is now supposed to be representative of current thinking and practices. It’s not clear that everyone knows that OfS requires programmes to offer module choices that ensure students are able to construct a coherent pathway. Does everyone know that a course that does not require students to develop and demonstrate intellectual skills, such as evaluating evidence, mobilising an argument, and solving problems, would constitute a concern? I’m not sure.

On a given programme, a staff team comprised solely of inexperienced teachers is not likely to be appropriately qualified and would be a problem for OfS. All students are supposed to be getting support relating to avoiding academic misconduct – including support for essay planning and accurate referencing, and advice about the consequences of academic misconduct.

Every programme should ensure the effective assessment of technical proficiency in the English language, every course should offer access to appropriate independent study space and students should not have to spend money on equipment, facilities or technology to access their learning. Is everyone aware and is everyone compliant? I’m not sure.

If OfS turned up tomorrow with its clipboards, this could (rightly in my view) be a real issue. But as well as posing a threat, I also think the new conditions represent a missed opportunity, especially for SUs – and I want to explain why.

Sometimes a shadow wins

When I’ve been out talking to student reps over the past year or so with the (draft, and as of May 1st, implemented) conditions in hand, something magical has happened.

Previously when student representatives were invited to proffer feedback about their course, they were never really given a basis on which to do so other than through the emotional reflexiveness of “are you happy or sad”.

In the student-academic “partnership”, one of the elephants in the room that makes the partnership unequal is that academics get to judge the performance of students, including the prospect of a “fail” – but despite protestations to the contrary, that’s not really what happens in the opposite direction.

That means that outside of formal survey instruments, student representatives don’t really know what they are allowed to talk about, who they are allowed to talk about it to, and can’t really work out if the feedback they might have gathered from other students is reasonable or unreasonable. And without their own assessment brief or marking rubric, students might never know if what they’re experiencing is not just capable of being enhanced, but is below a mandated minimum.

This is a problem. Quality enhancement is effectively a process by which everyone works together to improve things beyond a minimum. If students and staff don’t know what the areas are they are allowed to discuss together, the process will suffer.

And if students are experiencing something below the “minimum”, quality enhancement is the wrong sort of conversation to be having. Even if they are directed to material that aids their understanding of what is not good enough, who is the student rep that’s going to bowl into a staff-student liaison committee and chat about their programme being “unacceptably poor”?

Do we empower them?

That poses a puzzle for universities. On the one hand, there are student engagement processes designed for enhancement that don’t ever seem to set out the areas that might be worthy of discussion. And on the other hand, who would dare to pump out material that makes clear what the B Conditions represent, in case students start piling in with petitions and complaints – and potentially OfS notifications? Isn’t that the opposite of the kind of staff-student partnership thes sector wants to create?

I have good news. It turns out – from an extensive series of experiments that I’ve been carrying out throughout the year – that those sorts of fears are unfounded.

In fact, when you explain the new conditions to students and their representatives and invite them to judge their on-programme experience against them, their eyes light up. They get animated about improvements, talk about things universities might not expect and discuss the sorts of things that would make a difference to their learning and success.

It gives them confidence.

Knowing what they have the right to as a minimum doesn’t make them upset – it makes them feel more able to talk about teaching and learning and assessment. Knowing the sorts of things they are allowed to expect makes them more creative and contributory. Knowing what they should be getting that’s outside of their department’s control enables some common cause. And knowing what should be happening that is inside of their department’s control makes the “partnership” more assertive.

And what that ultimately means is that students are less likely to be consumerist, rather than more.

The thing is, if universities just resist telling students what they’re entitled to, fail to enable them to raise a concern if an aspect of the service isn’t up to snuff or discourage them from raising low-level complaints, they won’t know the difference between what they can expect and what they have to work for. They won’t know the difference, in other words, between being able to demand an output rather than an outcome.

It’s also the case that if there is a failing that they don’t raise – by the time that impacts on their academic performance and they fail, it will be too late. Look at all those academic appeal cases that universities and the OIA see that consist of “I didn’t get x” or “my supervisor didn’t help me” but are dismissed as concerning academic judgement. No wonder there’s then a need for them to behave like they’ve paid for a degree and for universities to subtly, culturally, tolerate that kind of behaviour and in some cases accede to it. Because by then, it’s too late.

So my advice to SUs in general and education officers and course rep coordinators specifically is as follows – train your student reps in the B Conditions. We have some sample resources that could help. Make sure students know when their university has failed – and know how it can be fixed quickly when it has. Because in the end, one of the basic foundations of trust in a partnership is about first knowing where you stand if it all goes wrong.

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