Sometimes student representation is about what’s not being talked about

Mike Hill is Head of Representation and Advice at UEA Students'​ Union

Wonkhe is great at highlighting the key talking points in the sector for universities and SUs.

But often the things that really matter are not what’s being talked about, it’s what’s not being talked about.

And that begs the question: when universities and their SUs encounter challenges that students have faced, how deeply does the sector delve into the root causes and potential strategic solutions?

From a surge in cases related to academic integrity to concerns regarding the payment of fees by international students, there’s a never ending list of issues that demand scrutiny.

But the problem isn’t the existence of these challenges. It’s that increasingly they seem to be an elephant sitting happily in the corner of the room.

Most unions I know seem to be the bearers of sector secrets – trends and issues that don’t seem to be talked about in the main committees, papers or blogs.

Is there a tendency to sweep issues under the rug, a reluctance to take decisive action, or maybe a shortfall in capacity to effectively address them?

Seeing in

In theory, an ethos of transparency and accountability is paramount within universities and SUs. But there are instances where those principles are tested, and where the allure of maintaining a pristine image can overshadow an imperative of confronting uncomfortable truths.

Here at uea(su), some 68 per cent of the advice centre’s caseload is supporting students of colour – at a predominantly white institution.

It’s the same when we dig down to academic cases (we do housing too) – and rising to 72 per cent for academic misconduct cases.

Digging down even further, when we overlay another demographic we see the figure of 68 per cent again – those we see for plagiarism and collusion support are international students.

Just identifying that is effectively sitting on that elephant in the room.

Talking to colleagues, there is certainly a willingness to understand what data like this tells us. Our Welfare, Community and Diversity Officer, Nathan, is going to be tabling this as a topic at their next catch up with the Academic Pro Vice Chancellors.

Yet one of the issues is that the university, as with many others, doesn’t collect data such as ethnicity and cross reference against those going through academic procedures. That’s not a criticism of the university, at least not yet – it’s just one of those things not tracked.

Often, student representation isn’t about winning arguments. It’s having them.

Doing a straw poll of SU colleagues we seem to fall into two camps – those that collect the data where it shows a similar picture, and those who don’t collect this data.

If you oversee an advice service, I’d urge you to collect demographic data. It’s crucial to examine what the data tells us and, as an aside, make sure we pass this on to student voice teams.

Casework provides SUs with firsthand, real-time, real-world insight that can have a profoundly positive impact on policies, shaping more informed and responsive conversation and debate.

As a sector there’s a pressing need to enhance our data collection practices, shifting our focus from merely how good we are through feedback.

And where we can triangulate that with available data – this chart on the international awarding gap for undergraduates, for example – it should lead to fruitful discussion.

Addressing not just responding

More generally, I question whether there’s enough motivation to prioritise the collection of data of this sort in the absence of clear incentives or consequences.

With fierce competition for limited funding, allocating resources to improve data collection often takes a back seat. There’s also little appetite to delve into the pressing concerns of international students, especially when the sector relies increasingly on their contributions to stay financially afloat.

But the danger is that this approach is short-sighted – prioritising quick wins and immediate results over long-term investments for sustainable improvement.

By dedicating time to delve into international data and augmenting it with qualitative intel, universities and their SUs can uncover the need for process reforms that better accommodate cultural differences and address issues such as currency fluctuations.

Deciding to interrogate properly and implement strategic solutions not only enhances the student experience but also alleviates the burden on support staff in the long run.

It allows all sorts of questions to be asked. Are there systemic deficiencies that warrant systemic reform? Is there a need for greater collaboration and information sharing among institutions to tackle common challenges? These are the questions that ought to cause us to delve deeper into the intricacies of the HE landscape.

In November many of the sector’s names will be heading down to London – to the Festival of Higher Education. Looking at the program there are some really interesting and intriguing topics on discussion with global politics, international student movements and the general elections.

What I am left wondering is how deep those involved will be willing to be to dive into the issues actually impacting students that are not being talked about.

The significance of student voices can’t be overstated. Sometimes it’s only SUs that will point out an issue that needs to be addressed.

Responding to what is being said, proposed and discussed by our universities is an important part of student representation. But sometimes, causing something else to be said, proposed or discussed is even more important.

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