Students are in the room. But who’s listening?

Ali Gibson is the outgoing VP Education (Health) at KCLSU.

The year is 2050, and the first “student-led university” has just been set up (OK, second if we’re counting Bologna in 1088).

Students design their own curricula and are empowered to explore learning at their own pace and into their own interests, supported by tutors in their academic and interpersonal development.

Senior leadership of the university is held accountable to a body of students, possibly a structure reflecting our students’ unions of 2021, who help set and guide the future direction of the university like a council or trustee board.

Staff across academia and professional services learn from our student body as much as the reverse is true, and students are given responsibility to contribute to the maintenance of a healthy, happy community.

Being totally honest, 30 years even seems a little too close for this to be a possibility, but a pipe dream it remains. Having been a sabbatical officer for the last year has shown me just how far away from this utopia we are (at least where I study), and as a result I’m going to explore just what we could mean by “meaningful student representation” to hopefully begin to break down those walls between students and staff.

I want to be in the room where it happens

Ask most students, nay most people, how they would like to find out or be involved in a decision or process, and the answer you’re likely to get first will echo Burr’s desperate plea in Hamilton. Being in the room where the decision is made seems logically the most sensible plan of action, and it’s definitely an expectation placed on most SU officers up and down the country.

Here’s a question – how many people that work in universities or higher education policy swanned into work on their first day completely savvy of the language, context, concepts and consequences of the matters dealt with on a daily basis, nevermind some of the high-level educational policy detail?

At my SU we provide heaps of training on leadership, information gathering, but do we break down what an “Academic Board” actually does? Do students (and staff!) have a chance to form a human connection away from the tensions and pressures of the committee setting, making it inescapably clear that universities are communities of staff and students in collaboration?

There’s also the much wider and weightier question of whether through our actions overall, students feel the university leadership cares about working with students – and the fact that that feeling can only be bolstered by putting the effort in up front and showing students that they do care.

Universities, inescapably, are built around a power dynamic, reinforced by the marketisation of higher education such that the student is the consumer and only there to be an absorbent sponge to all of the goodness given by the university staff. So perhaps at the end of the day, there is only so much we can do within that structure to support students to advocate for themselves. Getting students in the room is simply not enough.

The role of the rep

Our team of full time elected student officers have borne a lot – I count at least 15 regular committee meetings on my calendar, and that’s not beginning to get into Covid groups and additional fire-fighting, as our President rightfully calls it, that has arisen this year specifically.

I have genuine wonder as to how future teams of sabbatical officers will dash around campus unavoidably failing to attend the same number of meetings as we’ve managed to remotely. It’s a very specific representative role, a role that comes with a full time salary which, whilst not an excuse to be additionally harsh to officers, does mean they can give more energy and dedication to it than a PhD student whose upgrade is due in a month’s time.

Being a representative isn’t easy. As identified above when talking about power dynamics, for many reps there can be a strong sense of intimidation, imposter syndrome, coupled with helplessness if they know ten people have raised this query already and got nowhere with it.

At King’s when we bring a student into the room, whether they actively feel it or not, the weight of 36,000-ish students is being placed on their shoulders. Who wouldn’t feel intimidated? It also makes the uncertain academic’s position to discredit or question their view somewhat understandable, although perhaps not acceptable.

Further complication is brought in when we consult student groups for a particular reason – the university wishes to consult widening participation students on a new outreach programme, Black students on the progress made since their Racial Equality Action Plan was introduced, LGBT+ students on the new name change procedure (as examples).

Recently I was in one of these sorts of the meetings, and one student in question insightfully commented that “not only am I having to relive the traumatic consequences of discrimination, but this consultation itself has become part of my experience”. By doing so we concentrate the burden on these students, and most of the time we don’t even pay them as a recognition of their value.

Co-creation not consultation

University types might well ask – if it’s not asking a student rep into a room, and it’s not speaking to directly affected students, what on earth should we do?. For me the answer is co-creation. I can’t actually tell you what co-creation “is”, but it needs to be understood in the various university settings, communities and with the people which make it tick.

By designing with students in partnership from the outset, it seems logical that you are building a university where students can see other students influencing the university’s operations, strategy, and experience. From the top-down, involving students in the initiation of strategy review, trusting students to come up with good questions (after all, it’s their own futures that’s being determined across both education and research), having open, honest and unafraid conversations about the reality of student life in all its intersectionality.

From the bottom-up, students embedded into curriculum review, designing new modules and technologies to be used, not just retroactively reporting on what works and what doesn’t. And all this with reimbursement and recognition to help bridge that gap between student and staff, and as a significant proportion of our student body work to support their finances whilst at university, ensuring that participating in university change doesn’t come at a cost.

University: what is it good for?

I have been in countless discussions over the last year about the “meaning” or “value” of a university education, fuelled if not initiated by the current pandemic. I think the conversation is, slowly perhaps, moving toward an understanding that yes, the degree is one thing, but I also come here as a student to meet other people, to develop personally, socially and academically, to have my horizons broadened as they say and to be skilled up for our future world.

Co-creation as a method of educational design, of teaching can carry many benefits also – I’m not sure I’ll ever again have to answer 100 multiple-choice questions in 90 minutes, but I know any future job will require working in a team alongside people of different backgrounds, levels of familiarity and experience to bring about common solutions and implement them.

This is student leadership, universities taking the time to step back and genuinely empower a community of bright and brilliant young people to ideate an education system that brings together the best of them, the best of our staff and the best of and for wider society. I’ve had the absolute privilege of meeting many of them this year, who will take the worlds of business, healthcare, social sciences, academia, law and justice, politics and policy by storm.

So why aren’t we listening to them now?

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