School plays sell out

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It is often asserted to me that students won’t get involved, students won’t volunteer, we have to do things for students, and so on and so on.

Last week I met up with one of those student experience types that universities seem to be installing into departments these days.

A lot of it seemed to be putting things on for students that nobody came to, and some of it was promoting other stuff that different professional services and SU departments were putting on.

Anyway we sat and had a look at what the university and SU was trying to push that week.

We kept finding things. A craft event. A careers thing. A “become a rep” thing the SU was running. A five a side. A study skills thing the library was running. A talk on decol. A chance to meet the Lib Dem PPC. An “open” SSLC. A budgeting workshop. And so on.

It was like every little bit of the place had a little initiative it wanted students to get involved in or an event it wanted students to attend.

It was bewildering, hard work, and really just a mess. I imagine behind all of the 40 odd things we found is a stressed coordinator trying to hit a participation KPI.

What no-one knows is who’s taking part and who isn’t, and what impact it might be having.

Against the odds

Anyway, then later in the week I was in Paisley for a talk on belonging and the UWS Students’ Union AGM – a terrific event that’s officially about signing off accounts, but was transformed into a big celebration of the things that students at UWS do for eachother.

The best bit was a presentation from the Midwifery Society.

It shouldn’t work. It’s based on a relatively (at least in comparison to Paisley) remote campus. There are loads of mature students with caring responsibilities. They’re on placement all the time. It’s a demanding programme. All the things. But it’s brilliant.

Students are leading it!

Different students lead on different social media because a) they’re good at it and because b) different ages, different platforms.

It runs a cracking “social programme” which more purposeful than the tag implies, and which students actually overcome other barriers to go to. Some of their events are just everyone going for a coffee.

They display an infectious interest in and passion for their subject/profession.

They’ve taken part in conferences on Midwifery and won awards. The President was proud of a low attrition rate – but still wants it to be lower. They talked a lot about belonging. They want to be “students voice”.

Their podcast was a brilliant story. A student was posting voice notes in the big WhatsApp group with placement tips, and called it “her wee podcasts”. The rest is history.

And so that students belong, they run an event before term starts where everyone gets to know each other – so that nobody turns up on Day One “alone”.

One notable thing is that technically, they don’t represent students. There’s a rep scheme for that. Naturally the President has a way around that.

With the back up of the main SU team and the university, this to all intents and purposes IS a students union for those students – but one that fits a communitarian vision of student engagement.

And crucially, without it, what are the chances that these students – with their unusual timetables, difficult responsibility loads, specific academic needs and remote campuses will fit the stretched resources of an individual initiative from an SU or university department?

Five frames

This terrific paper on “frames” for student engagement and representation sets out models for what student representation is for.

  • The “consequentially collaborative” case for student representation in university decision-making is centred on the recognition of students as significant stakeholders within the academic institution.
  • The “consumerist” case for student representation in university governance frames students as clients or consumers of education, contrasting the political motives of earlier democratisation efforts.
  • The “civic cultivation” or “democratic” case for student representation in higher education is all about the role of universities as sites of democratic citizenship, where students gain skills that citizens need, opportunities for personal growth, and capacities for critical thinking.
  • And the “consequentialist” case for student representation focuses on the positive outcomes it can have for universities and students. Benefits include a more open, peaceful, and responsive academic environment, trust building, improved decision quality, and enhanced student experiences.

I’ve seen these “cases” represented in any number of policy documents over the years. But there’s a fifth that’s much more common across Europe.

The “communitarian” case argues for student involvement in university decision-making based on their role as community members.

It builds on the idea of a university as a community of shared goals and reciprocal obligations – and so supports student participation, the idea that students co-produce their education experience, and need to cooperate with each other as much as they do with university staff or services.

It argues that student involvement enriches the academic community by incorporating diverse viewpoints, and is big on a sense of belonging. If students feel part of something, goes this set of arguments, they’re more likely to do well and be healthy.

It involves:

  • Students being supported to form associations and associative activity around their programme, subject or department.
  • Social induction, buddying, student tutoring and student-led support schemes that role model and support the idea that students will be successful when they support each other.
  • Integrating student representatives in governance, expanding student rep roles, and forming cross-functional committees with students, staff, and professional services for sustainability, safety, and diversity efforts.
  • Community engagement spaces and events like town hall meetings, forums, and workshops – led by students – to encourage dialogue and collective solutions among students, staff, and staff, enhancing community spirit.
  • Embedding volunteering, community engagement and service-learning into universities and SUs to enrich academic experience, connect students to the broader community, and foster a sense of social responsibility.

Why are we like this?

The thing I’m getting at is that in the UK, lots of SU departments and professional services departments each try to get students involved in their thing. And when they don’t sign up or the room is empty, we tend to put low participation in those things down to environmental and student factors.

But if the scaffolds are in place for students to make things happen and lead their own communities, they can overcome all sorts of barriers. And we need to. We are still seeing 1 in 5 students saying they’re lonely every day.

And when we do things with other people, suddenly we’re not characterised by our characteristics, judged by our accent, ranked by our background or targeted by an intervention. We start to transcend the labels and become the artist, the coach, the consultant or the cook.

What’s odd about the UK is that for historical accident reasons, we’re not great at making this sort of thing happen from the point of view of subjects or departments.

Groups that cater for your favourite sport, hobby or your particular student characteristic are traditionally popular. But for subject, a disparate patchwork of individual programme reps, academic societies and occasional events mean that students don’t often form communities that they get involved in and lead.

The scaffolding matters. There’s a lot to be said for the ambitions and achievements here, and the associations that can be seen here. They come from universities and SUs working together to prioritise students leading communities at subject level – communities that students will involve themselves in whatever the barriers, without terrifying elections or “professionals” running everything.

I don’t believe there’s a single school or department in a university in the UK that doesn’t have, if supported and scaffolding right, students who want to support and represent other students.

But as long as the UK clings to its models of centralised everythings in the social and support space, and individual student reps doing things on their own, is probably as long as we’ll still be getting it wrong.

I have a problem on my course. Shall I a) raise it in a survey b) approach my course rep c) chat to midsoc?

There have been changes to some of the placement settings and I want a sense of how students are finding it. Shall I a) do a survey b) speak to a stressed rep c) wait to see if there’s any complaints or d) chat to MidSoc?

You know the most important thing? When I was chatting to the President I got a real sense that she and her committee thought it was partly up to students to make both the student experience and the profession better. In fact, mainly.

School plays sell out. And they make us feel involved in and proud of the school and its community of pupils and parents.

One response to “School plays sell out

  1. To add to your point on ‘Why are we like this?’ for many academics a deeper engagement with the SU and Societies takes time that is not included in any workload allocation therefore unfortunately ends up at the bottom of the priority list, thus a poor effort and outcome. Of course that could change if senior management changed the workload model. This would result in more engaged students with a sense of belonging and most likely better outcomes.

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