This article is more than 4 years old

What is student engagement?

This article is more than 4 years old

Ollie Kasper is Head of Engagement​​ at Student Minds

I was tasked with carrying out a listening project amongst the staff in the students’ union. The listening was framed around the question of “What is Engagement?”. The aim was to appreciate overlaps in perception in order to identify a consistent definition of “engagement” for the Students’ Union.

This is a collection of my thoughts and at times this can read a little informal or conversational, I hope you can excuse me of this – it was never my intention to create a very formal or faceless report from this work.

To give you a clue of where this came from I would have to go back to 2013, when UoNSU achieved over 10,000 votes in our Student Leader Elections – a huge difference from the turnout the preceding year which was around 5,600 votes. In the years that have followed we have continued to progress incrementally and last academic year we achieved close to 12,500 votes.

This shows incredible progress and the reason for such a change in 2012/13 was down to a fundamental shift in how the elections were ran; shifts in terms of a focus on candidate development, the abolition of the draconian rules system, a focus on linking the act of voting to the issues that students were experiencing on campus and transferring more ownership of these elections from solely Officers / Campaigns and Democracy and empowering more departments within our organisation to take part, such as setting up polling booths in departments, visiting halls and offering to help and support candidates. We’ve had quite an influx of staff in the Union since 2013 so there may not be many reading this report that are able to appreciate, in context, the step change that had occurred.

We have ambitious targets for our Student Leader Elections and by the end of our strategy we aim to be achieving a turnout of 50%; this is likely to be around 16,500 voters (depending on what source of University data that you are reading at the time). So what does this have to do with “engagement”? Good question. My view of engagement revolved around how well we got students to participate, so by getting 12,500 votes in the Student Leader Elections we did a great job at engaging students to participate. So the number of sign ups, votes, people turning up to an event, etc would be an indicator of whether our “engagement” work had been effective.

My view was that in order to achieve the ambitious targets until the end of our strategy we now needed another step change in how we engage students with the Union as the findings of most research over the years shows us that students will vote if they can see how their vote will impact on their experience at University (this could be because there is seen to be no incentive, they are not aware of the SU and/or the elections, they don’t think their vote will make an impact, they do not know the candidates, etc).

In my view then students had to see the overall role and the relevance of the Students’ Union to them in order for them to vote; that was the answer. I didn’t know exactly how that would be done but I was frustrated at the lack of consistency in what departments understood about engagement and to be absolutely honest I was somewhat arrogant in thinking that my understanding was the only and the correct one! Having shared and reflected on some of these frustrations I was happily tasked with this listening project and sure enough I started to badger staff to meet with me!


A series of listening exercises where held with staff on a one-to-one basis, usually in an informal setting over a coffee. This approach was very useful, putting staff members at ease with them showing a willingness to talk freely about their perceptions regarding student “engagement”. I have spoken to over 30 members of staff about their feelings and perceptions on engagement and this has been a truly valuable experience, with lots of my assumptions and assertions being challenged and giving me the opportunity to gain over 30 different perspectives – so thank you to all the staff who took part. I would have loved to have spoken to more, but time has ran out and I will be leaving the Students’ Union soon.

The most startling and initially confusing conclusion was that in trying to find a shared definition of “engagement” for the Union I am somewhat stumped, so yes it seems I have failed at the first hurdle of the project! But I am going to share my findings with you and see how we get on.

In this report I do talk about possible solutions and recommendations, these are more just a way of raising new ideas and are posed as a way of hopefully prompting some more discussion. Don’t forget that this report outlines my perspective on the perspectives of 30+ staff and so will be informed by some of my own personal confirmation bias. The exciting thing is that there are definitive themes that should be pulled out and discussed in a constructive way; we should be able to have creative conflict – that is how the best ideas are formed and a sense of ownership is achieved amongst colleagues.

A shared definition of engagement; the challenge of language and perception

Following this listening exercise what has become apparent is that finding a unified definition will be a challenge, I will attempt to explain this with an example. If we take examples from two staff members that I have listened to:

One staff member used the example of a student that has received an email (or some other tactic used to inspire involvement) regarding a CV workshop. The student reads the email, understands what the event is about but decides not to attend. The student is then said to have engaged but chosen not to participate since they have taken the information on board but decided that the event is not for them.

Another member of staff looks at “engagement” in a different way. The example used here was a student during Welcome Week that may be on the receiving end of a tactic to inspire involvement for a Welcome event but, whilst not really being sure about the students’ union participates in the event anyway. Whilst participating in the event the student is inspired to get involved in more students’ union initiatives and therefore becomes engaged having participated.

When we consider the two examples we see that both are quite different from one another. The first example involves a student that is engaged but chosen not to participate and the second shows a student that was not engaged, chose to take part and then became engaged. The words used are practically the same but seem to emphasise different meanings. What I find very fascinating as well is that I find myself agreeing with both examples when viewing through a lens of context that is informed by the perspective of the two members of staff.

What is also very interesting and forms a talking point for the Union is that these two staff members work in the same office, so when we extrapolate this we can see that finding a consistent definition of “engagement” will be a challenge considering the multi-faceted nature of our organisation. Here the question is; is engagement the use of proactive techniques to increase involvement or is it more of a state of mind/being that students will have? Can it be both? Is that okay? I actually think it may be.

Another example comes from a conversation that I had with a colleague from Marketing regarding engagement and this was related to the number of views on videos through Facebook. At the time Facebook had recently changed the way that playing videos worked on newsfeeds, those that are directly uploaded to Facebook automatically play whilst people are scrolling up and down on their newsfeed. So just scrolling past a video and seeing the first few seconds play counts as a “view”. We had a video go out for the Student Leader Elections of a flash mob and we got 10,000 views in a day. I was astonished but then I realised when visiting my news feed that was based on the changes outline above. So I questioned our colleague in our one-to-one, do you think this is good engagement? To which our colleague replied “yes”.

If you can recall my understanding of engagement revolved around students taking proactive action so the notion of thousands of students passively viewing was, to me, not necessarily “good engagement work”.  I shared my dilemma with our colleague and we discussed it further, through our discussion our colleague shared with me their expertise in social media and we agreed that by having this feature one is more likely to be enticed into viewing the whole video by seeing it play, and so we came up with some joint language of “reach” that better tied together our two views. We both went from what could be perceived as opposing views to reach a joint understanding and finding resonance in the points that we were both making. It was not an “agree to disagree” situation but rather a conversation that allowed us to understand each other, we can’t measure that but this understanding has led to increased social capital between the two of us and we understand where we are coming from. The learning from this? Talk is work.

Some people may be thinking, “well, just get over it Ollie – you’re both trying to achieve the same thing and you’re not the expert” and I would have agreed with this before the listening project. But the language that we use and what we communicate on as colleagues is so important, particularly in such a multi-faced and diverse organisation. We all saw the way the organisation debated what our values should be and how we moved from “enable” to “empower” as one of our three core values. Some across the organisation at the point of changing from enable to empower just wanted to get on with it and have “enable” and to be fair the dictionary definitions of both words are synonymous. However for some colleagues across the organisation there was a fundamental difference in the two words and the connotations that each give. The learning from this? Language and the words that we use are more important than we know. Talk is work, and now after we’ve all had that dialogue the organisation now has ownership of those values and the language used.

We can also take more learning from this and that is; if we have cross departmental meetings where we are discussing the delivery of projects, events or strategies and we see such different meanings of key words it may not be surprising that sometimes tension may exist on that level through no fault of the staff involved but through either (1)  a lack of a consistent use of language and meaning or (2) the need for more conversations occurring in order to conceive ideas together rather than to get “buy in” just to deliver other people’s ideas.

The impact of one’s own experience at University or with Students’ Unions

Another interesting point was just how much staff take from their own University experience and it forming the basis of how they view engagement in their role and the Union as a whole.

For example we have some staff that were quite heavily “engaged” with their Students’ Union when studying and these staff tend to be quite assertive in thinking that the Students’ Union has a role to play for all students and that students should have some knowledge of the wider Union when engaging/partaking in Union activities and initiatives (it is also interesting to note that this seems to be a more consistent attitude the higher up the organisational chart that a staff member is situated). Here is an example that I used when listening to staff:

We have a final year History student called Eric and he has had a very passive involvement with the Union over his first two years. Eric decides that in his final year he wants to finally get more involved. He signs up online to the Harry Potter and Quidditch Society and goes to play Quidditch most Wednesday afternoons) for the remainder of the year. Eric has a great time and makes what will come to be life-long friends through this. At this point there is little or no contact from the Students’ Union even though the activity that Eric is doing is a part of the Students’ Union.

The question that I asked in this fantastically loaded example was “is this okay?”. The answers among those that were very involved in their students’ unions was in the main, no. They believed that Eric somehow should know that this was students’ union involvement, but we struggled to see how that could happen. Interestingly if you had asked me before the project I would have agreed with our “SU keeno staff” that Eric’s experience was not okay, now I’m not so sure.

There were a number of staff, as mentioned, that were passively involved in their Union as a society committee member or part-time worker that had less affinity with their Students’ Union when studying but thoroughly enjoyed their time at University and their involvement. What was consistent amongst quite a few of the staff’s opinions when asked about Eric’s experience was:

“Well that’s okay from the individual’s point of view so I’m happy for Eric but from the organisation’s point of view in terms of our KPIs and student satisfaction, maybe not.”

It well be worth covering this in induction periods to give staff a general shared vision.

Empowering Student Led Activities and Identification with the Union

This leads us nicely onto the idea of student led activity and the challenge with students identifying this with the Students’ Union. Something that really struck me upon joining this Students’ Union, having worked in two before here, is just how student-ledmost of our groups are. They are empowered to the point, and this was apparent from my listening, where there seems to be a detachment of ownership or resonance with any overarching Union identify, particularly amongst the lead students within the individual groups. My experience of students’ union engagement and activity is that we see members of staff that are recruited to support and develop activity, but with our rich tradition at the University of Nottingham a lot of our groups are steeped in history and have existed long before the Union employed staff to specifically support them.

We see situations that, whilst the individuals’ relationships with development staff are strong and positive (particularly with Community Coordinators and Society Development Coordinators), there may not be that wider appreciation that students participating are part of something larger, and that is the Students’ Union. We see this with our Associations in varying degrees; we also see this with societies, clubs and our Student Ran Services. This was something that Harry Copson, UoNSU President 2014/15, blogged on entitled “Us and them” (

The dichotomy is that as a Students’ Union we want to empower student-led activity but for NSS Q23 purposes we want students to identify their great experience with the Students’ Union. Are these two ideas compatible? Is there a middle ground?

I also found from my discussions with the Education Network that our Course Reps, seeing as the system is a partnership with the University, will identify more with their course and the University than being seen as a specific Students’ Union representative, as they work more closely with University staff, this is only natural. With School Reps, we have more contact, and are more likely to identify with the Education Network – but does this mean the Students’ Union by extension?

It is not only in our student groups where we have this “the SU” attitude. In Mooch (The SU Bar) we have a great bunch of close knit student staff and there is a real sense of community. Before Christmas I had some coaching meetings with a student that was involved in our Democratic structures and committees, she also worked for Mooch. Having some small talk I asked her about working at Mooch and she indicated that she liked it but there was a small problem with the student staff Christmas party in that the Mooch student staff were awaiting to see if “the SU” were going to make a financial contribution to the costs of the party. Interested by what she meant by “the SU” I asked, “So, are Mooch not putting some money to it?” she replied saying “yes of course, but we are trying to get some money from the SU”.

This was so interesting to me as this student worked for the Students’ Union, was quite involved in some of our student groups and was active in our democratic structures yet there was no sense of overall identity with the Students’ Union. Instead the SU was seen as a bureaucratic organisation that she has to struggle with to get funding for Christmas parties. Obviously, Mooch is the SU. I asked Kev about this and he was not surprised, confirming that the staff team, whilst being a great close knit community and a credit to Mooch and the Students’ Union, do not identify with the wider organisation. So we see that this issue spans cross-directorate, a lot of our active students perceiving the SU to be a regulatory bureaucracy instead of a benevolent charity with the aim of enhancing and advancing education (our charitable purpose).

Students’ Union as a charity and the concept of “Membership”

Students’ Unions make up the student movement and something that is exciting about this “movement” is that it is exactly that; always moving. Students’ Unions and the growth in the number of people accessing Higher Education have seen the organisations change from having a similar legal identity to working men’s clubs as “unincorporated associations” to becoming a new and developing wing of the Third Sector with charitable registration following the Charities Act 2006. With this we have had an increase in the number of students, in the early 1990s there were 18,000 students registered at both of Nottingham’s Universities and now we see around 34,000 students registered at University of Nottingham alone (and around 25,000 at NTU). We see here that the scope and purpose of a Students’ Union has really changed bringing both new challenges and a host of new opportunities.

How does this relate to engagement? Well, the concept of membership is interesting to me following a conversation with a staff member in Campaigns and Democracy. Every student at Nottingham is automatically a member of the Students’ Union thanks to opt out membership, something which is enshrined in the Education Act 1994. In essence a student’s membership of the Union is a by-product of them enrolling to study here, as we know there is not a conscious decision to become a member. When we look at other membership organisations such as The Cooperative Group, The Ramblers Association or even Trade Unions there is always a conscious decision to join and become a member and you join because this will result in a benefit to you. This must have some impact on how we engage students. By telling them that they are “automatically” a member of something are we creating an already abstract “us and them” situation to begin with and as we seek a way of defining the Students’ Union do we alienate more students, more of our members?

Are we a Union? Does the word “Union” accurately capture how we operate as an organisation? The definition of Union is “a society or association formed by people with a common interest or purpose”, the common interest of our members is that they study at University of Nottingham, but is this enough to bind people in order to find resonance with the overall concept of our Union? If we replaced our name “University of Nottingham Students’ Union” to “Nottingham Students’ Charity” or “Nottingham Students’ Cooperative” does that not conjure connotations of a more benevolent and compassionate organisation? More so than “Union”? Or more so than “The SU”. It’s a thought. Or are we trying to do too much? These are questions worth asking and worth the Union discussing as an organisation.

The Students’ Union Brand (From a layman’s perspective)

I don’t understand too much when it comes to branding, so I’m not going to discuss it too much. I do know that brand is about more than a logo or a PowerPoint template and this is what we are trying to achieve here at UoNSU. Our brand forms our identity, our values, our narrative to stakeholders together with the feelings and connection that we invoke within our customers when they interact with us. We have something of a challenge here at UoNSU with our brand; how do we ensure it captures the diversity of our organisation? How can we ensure that all 34,000 customers can experience what UoNSU is all about?

I have found this question interesting throughout the listening project. If we want students to have a sense of ownership of the wider Union then surely branding has a key role to play? In order for our customers/service users/beneficiaries/members to have satisfaction with us they must first know that it was the Students’ Union that offered them great housing advice and was also responsible for delivering a top night-out at Grad Ball. So we need a consistent brand identity and customer service to achieve this, right?

Or do we need students to know everything that we deliver? If we look at a company such as Unilever, people don’t necessarily know or have to know that the same company that owns “Pot Noodle” also owns “Radox” or with Mars; the same company owns “Dolmio” that owns “Skittles”. Do students have to know that Impact is part of the same organisation as the Student Advice Centre? Or should we embrace these as separate brands? Is it realistic to expect this of our members? To add balance “Virgin” is a brand that people identify with lots of services, from flying to supplying broadband. Is it possible for the Union to achieve this brand identity with our customers?

Lessons from the journey of our Full time Officers

What is interesting from listening to our officers is looking at their development journey and unpicking the lessons found in there for our expectations of students. If we accept that our full time officers have been quite heavily involved in the Students’ Union throughout their time then we would probably expect them to have this sense of the wider Union that we talk about.

In fact I have found that this is quite the opposite and I remember a conversation I had with a former President in the early days of his Presidency that demonstrates this. I asked him what he thought of something from the perspective of an “involved student”, he replied by questioning the premise of my assumption and I mentioned that he had been quite heavily involved in the SU. He said that he didn’t look at it like that, in fact he enjoyed playing football so he joined the football team, he wanted to be involved in his hall so he ran to be President of his hall committee, he then wanted to stay involved so ran to be Chair of Presidents’ Committee, he wanted to go to NUS so he ran be a delegate, he enjoyed Week One so wanted to be a Week One Rep. Suddenly I saw it from his perspective; even the Students’ Union President did not have this sense of a wider Students’ Union identity, he identified his involvement on more of a micro level than my staff member macro perspective.

We see it in Officer’s induction, how often do our officers mention in their early days, “I’m learning so much about the SU that I didn’t know”? Every year I see and hear this. So it is only after we have invested 2/3 months inducting these former involved students through training/handover/etc do they start to have a sense of the wider Union and it’s multifaceted nature. We induct officers into our macro perspective of Students’ Union activity. With this in mind how can we expect Eric, just playing Quidditch every Wednesday, to understand this wider sense of identity and for him to reflect this in his feelings of satisfaction with the Students’ Union? A talking point perhaps…


“We need to raise awareness of the Union”

In my five years in this Union I have heard this many times. I remember starting my employment here in the old Communications team, before we employed in-house researchers, we had commissioned the “Big Review” which was a huge survey carried out by Research consultants, “Red Brick”. The main outcome of this massive survey was that students did not know what the Union did, awareness was low and so the Union made a strategic decision to invest in a new Communications department. Today I hear very similar outcomes from our “How Can We Help?” surveys, and again we talk about raising awareness of the Union and that we need to run a Union awareness campaign.

What I have taken from my listening is that the Union is so multi-faceted so we are entirely unsure as to what we are raising awareness of, in fact when you search for an all-encompassing definition of our Union it becomes so broad and detached from now what we know students’ experiences to be that it can be quite meaningless. So when we ask students about their awareness of the Union who really are we to say that they lack awareness? A students’ union should be whatever the students want it to be, and, as one of our colleagues says “the Union is what the students want it to be; and not what we tell them it is”.

As a professional campaigner many who know me will know my thoughts on “raising awareness”, as I am always quick to preach about it. When training students I always use the example of seat belts, smoking and flying. So, in a room full of people I say I’m doing an experiment on awareness.

  1. Firstly, we ask “how many people are aware that wearing a seatbelt will improve your personal safety?”, everyone puts their hands up in the air.
  2. Secondly, “how many people are aware that smoking is bad your health?”, again everyone raises their hands.
  3. Thirdly, “how many people are aware that aeroplanes and flying has a negative impact on our environment?”, and once again everyone is aware of this.

What we have demonstrated is raising awareness works, right? What we then do is ask the question, firstly, “Who here wears a safety belt in vehicles”, everyone put their hands up. Secondly “Who here smokes?”, usually around 10-15% of the hands go up. Thirdly “how many people have flown in a plane during the last two years?”, everyone lifts their hand. So we see that awareness raising is not necessarily a gateway to behavioural change.

There is a really interesting article on Campaign Central that looks at the difference between awareness raising and raising consciousness by Alastair Lichten

There are also loads of books to read on behaviour change. “Nudge” by Richard H Thaler is worth a read ( and the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg: )

An appreciation of values and frames ( or anything by George Lakoff or Drew Westen) is also very useful.

Departmental Philosophies

It is important to appreciate that the perception of one team member does not singularly represent those of their whole department, but there are some interesting observations on slight differences on approach and philosophy between departments.

Some departments, whilst offering differing services, do not approach engagement in the sense of proactively encouraging all students to be involved. This is not to say that these teams do not want to continue to enhance their participation, it is just not seen as desirable to achieve a high volume or critical mass of involvement. Some prime examples here are Student Volunteer Centre, Student Advice Centre, the shops and Mooch. Whereas in Campaigns and Democracy we will attempt to engage as many students as possible in our Student Leader Elections, and we take the approach that students should join a society and if there isn’t one that they like they can create their own.

Volunteering offer a great service for students that wish to volunteer, they are not trying to convince all students that volunteering is for them. So we see a different mind-set and a different emphasis from one of “We offer a great service and we try to make it as accessible as possible for students wishing to take partto one of “whatever interests or views a student has there are always ways to get involved”. This is also evident in staff members that have worked across different services. I spoke to two staff members that have worked with Hall Committees and in Student Volunteering; they both remarked at how different the type of student is that they engage with.

I wanted to know if that was more about the natural type of person that would be attracted to the different areas or was it the services that were perpetuating that in maybe only appealing to that type or types of student – we agreed that this was likely to be somewhere in the middle. So there may be a question here of when are we advertising our services to students that may be interested and when are we trying to specifically target as many students as possible to participate and if you are attempting the latter then maybe that is when we can collectively talk about engagement.

Key Learning: Personal Relationships and Social Capital

I think my main learning is just how valuable the process of talking to staff members and officers has been for me. “Social Capital” is a concept that Margaret Heffernan explores in her book “Beyond Measure” and it talks about changing cultures within organisations with small changes that make a big difference. What I got from my listening is that we don’t do enough formally or informally to enhance Social Capital (or the emotional bank accounts between us), I hear a lot about poor internal communication and teams frustrated at working in silos.

We need to find more ways to break out of our silos and speak to each other, initiatives like “Learning at Work” and ”Wellbeing Week” are great examples of how we get out our silos and talk to one another, as are projects such as this one, SLT walking round Alton Towers with staff members, volunteering to do the stock take in the Shop and simply more conversations in corridors. We also have to take it upon ourselves to actively listen to each other and have empathy with our colleagues. If we have better personal relationships with one another then tough conversations and creative conflict become smoother and easier to manage, it builds trust, eliminates blame culture and ultimately leads to a happier workforce.

You cannot over-estimate the impact of having great personal relationships with our active students; we see great results when our staff focus on this. So Sarah Burton with the General Election project, developed personal relationships with student activists/volunteers, I have seen it with Shea in Volunteering, Sarah Tilley with School Reps, Rob and Una in Student Living, Nicci and Sue on Reception together with Becca, Andy and Ollie in Societies. I’m sure there are others in the organisation that cultivate strong relationships with students and this is absolutely key. This way we are not seen as a servicing organisation or bureaucracy but we are personified by the great people we have working here. You cannot reach 34,000 students individually but you can create thousands of advocates and ambassadors.

There is also something around being where students are, and the results that we get we immerse ourselves in the student experience. Rich Whiston can get more interaction from a Tweet from Varsity when he is there at the event; Shea enjoys going to SB and Derby and getting to know the students and this cultivates strong results for the volunteering activity. Sam Nichols from Education Network wrote a great blog on Research ( and what grabbed me was what he learned from going out to SB and listening to students out there, he now has great insight into this experience and how working from SB has to be more than a tokenistic gesture. We can gain more insight through experiential working than by being told what these students are.

There are so many pockets of expertise, insight and knowledge that exist in us and our colleagues; we ultimately need to talk more, find creative ways to collaborate and reach our massive potential. Thanks so much to everyone for letting me listen to your thoughts, I’m sorry that I can’t be there to take these discussions forward but the important thing is that we do have creative conflict in the Union. Margaret Heffernan says its best here:

Leave a Reply