This article is more than 1 year old

Is it time to build something better? Course reps and change in 2023

This article is more than 1 year old

George Bryant-Aird is Faculty Regulation and Governance Officer at Edge Hill University

At Edge Hill Students’ Union, by far the most contentious session at our 2022 Summer Strategy fortnight was the two hours dedicated to Course Representative Overview.

In short, we were an office divided – one half arguing course representatives were a vital part of how we engage with students, the other arguing that the structures were too rigid and that any student should be able to give meaningful feedback.

Over the past month, three of our Student Voice team joined Wonkhe SUs on the trip to Scandinavia – and their subsequent discussions around SUs and student associations have got me thinking about our own structures all over again.

The truth is, an entire student engagement overhaul requires a luxury of time and resources that most SUs in this country simply don’t have.

But a more realistic question might be to ask – if we persist with UK course representative structures, then what are the building blocks to make sure the highest number of students have meaningful input into university decision-making?

Or to put it another way, what tools do we have at our disposal right now to ensure course representatives are empowered to enact real change?

Quality Assurance and the B conditions

So, you’ve recruited 500 course representatives. Now what?

For a lot of SUs (us included) the answer has traditionally consisted of course rep meet and greets, digital representative journals, and sending waves of emails chasing attendance at Faculty Boards and SSCFs. All of these things, when delivered well, are fine. But is fine enough?

It’s perhaps not the method of engagement that could improve things here, but how those feedback mechanisms can be narrowed, made more targeted, and how they might better link into parts of the university where student voice will make a tangible difference?

You may be familiar with your University’s Quality Management Handbook. But are you checking if your course representatives are being used as the first point of contact during the student consultation phase of new validations – and anyway, do the academics across your university’s departments even know who their course reps are?

In the case of Major Programme Modifications, have you communicated with academic colleagues to require at least a base level of course representative notification and consultation, or does your university’s handbook (as is often the case) treat zero student responses as tacit agreement to the proposed changes?

And if you have an online course representative journal, are your fields directing student feedback using the qualitative descriptors attached to OFS’ B1, B2, B4, and B5 conditions of regulation, or are you simply asking for open comment feedback – because if you are using the former, you’ve got to equip those course reps with OfS knowledge during training.

As with all things, you just need to ensure that your structures speak to your university’s. If your whole course representative structure has pivoted to using digital tools and platforms, might now be a good time to finally talk about the effectiveness of in-person SSCFs?

Data, Data, and Data

We’re not talking NSS, HESA data, or OfS B3 Dashboards here – though, clearly, you should be providing your course reps with links to these things in their training and induction packs.

If as an SU you’re using dashboards in your reporting to the university, you’re running a consultation with students, or your SU President is part of a working group where the university has shared engagement and retention data that will impact students, then you need to have an effective method of sharing this with your course reps.

We can’t expect course reps to shoulder the weight of change without first giving them impactful tools to do so. At Edge Hill, for example, we have started building visualisations using feedback gathered in our digital rep journal.

The hope is that, with time, this will take the basic feedback mechanism from one which allows students to identify issues in isolation without a wider picture of what else is happening on their course, to a quick reference tool giving students the power to back up their queries and concerns with evidence submitted by other students across faculty, department, and course level.

Defining educational gains

When OfS’ TEF guidelines were released, much of the head-scratching revolved around what the regulator actually meant by educational gain.

Because they were never given an explicit definition, university senior teams have been forced to define it for themselves in their submissions. Now that’s settled, SUs should be looking at their university’s conceptualisation of educational gain and deciding:

  1. If you believe it is robust and clear enough, and if it pushes university teams in the right direction to support students’ outcomes and experiences
  2. How the course representative system can begin offering feedback in the language you know will have an impact on university senior management

At Edge Hill we worked with the university following the publication of a Graduate Attributes Framework (or, a list of attributes and traits that Edge Hill believes all students should develop during their time at university). By the time the educational gain confusion arrived on our doorstep, we’d already integrated those graduate attributes into our engagement trackers and monitoring frameworks, and had started gathering course-level feedback on which attributes students feel they are developing and not developing on their course.

Bigger, better, more “academic” societies

As has been covered on Wonkhe in the past, where UK-HE sees societies and course representatives as two distinct poles, elsewhere in Europe this idea would be panned as flagrantly ridiculous.

Staff in my team came back from Europe shocked that one SU had just 16 student societies (Edge Hill Students’ Union, by comparison, has closer to 80), but, in the case of the European SU, those societies were given their own office space, facilities, autonomy, and influence over the planning in their academic departments.

Is it as easy as a matter of quality over quantity, then?

Across Europe, what we would call academic societies are variously involved in seven important functions:

  1. Representation – coordinating student representation at a school or subject level both on an ongoing and specific project level in a way that is more likely to be framed as evaluation than just “voice”
  2. Social – events and activities less focussed on clubbing or wristbands than we might see in the UK
  3. Welcome – mentoring small groups of students to create and foster belonging
  4. Becoming – helping students in a subject area to understand the things they need to know and do to be successful with events, talks, handbooks and even apps
  5. Advocacy – Helping students to both distribute information to others about their rights, but also volunteers taking some of the case load from advice professionals, helping solve smaller problems before a later crisis emerges
  6. Confidence – providing peer developed and delivered study skills and assessment support activity aimed at getting students to the finishing line
  7. Careers – developing smaller and more subject-focussed activity that gets students are more likely to turn up to

At Edge Hill our Education society spans the whole faculty (three separate departments). They already organise conferences, work with academic colleagues on key student experience projects, and provide social and recreational opportunities for students. And yet for some reason we have also recruited over 115 Education students as course reps in a structure that sits completely outside of the society.

As can be seen on the visualisation below, those two structures are simply not interacting with each other, not by design, but by some arbitrary historical divide we have created between the two methods of empowering students (page two shows just 7 of those 115 Education reps are also members of the Education Society, for example).

Why then, would we not create a system that allows the Education society to also be the student-facing contact for feedback and advocacy, working closely with both our independent advice team and the university’s academic procedures?

For students, this would mean the academic society would be the wrap-around peer-to-peer support line for everything from academic queries to Wednesday night socials – and a good way in to work on careers, academic confidence and belonging too.

Imagine a situation where the university would then provide resources, spaces, and facilities to that society as its output and influence grew – a concrete, student-led, autonomous presence dedicated to supporting students and enhancing their experience, backed up by data and staff support from their union.

Imagine then a central students’ union that could call on the involvement and intel of its academic societies when representing students or asking students to feed in on a university issue. Some of them might even be able to attend some university committees instead of sabbs.

The mind boggles – and while none of us are going to get there overnight, surely we can all take a part of the university and trial some interventions over the next year or so?

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One response to “Is it time to build something better? Course reps and change in 2023

  1. This is such an interesting article and has got us questioning a lot of the traditional things we do in terms of course representation. I like the idea of there being a closer link between reps and societies. One issue we’ve wrestled with is the fact societies have always had their own “terms of reference” and wouldn’t necessarily align to this new system. We also find that many of our departmental societies aren’t that in the traditional sense e.g. our Criminology society has very few Criminology students in it and is more for students who have interest in true crime! We wouldn’t want students being told what the purpose of their society has to be.

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