Supporting students to be effective on university boards

Aimee Cuthbert is Assistant Voice Manager (Perth and Moray) at Highlands & Islands Students'​ Association

Institutional governance might not be the sexiest thing for anyone to think about – but anyone like me in SUs who has a bit of an interest in this area will know of its importance.

It is a huge part of any elected officers’ remit that, unless they are governance geeks, was probably not the key factor of them deciding to run for a position at their students’ association, union or guild.

It is true that campus facilities, clubs and societies and better access to mental health are hot topics – but ensuring institutional governance is effective for students might not be what encourages students to make that candidate first on their voting list.

Nonetheless, the student voice on such bodies like senate/academic board, court and university boards/councils is crucial.

So what about the support for this? Do our officers fully know what this means? Do we, as staff, know how to support officers with these meetings?

And where does the line blur between staff offering our officer support and doing their jobs for them when it comes to prepping for and representing the student voice at such high-level decision-making bodies?

As a governance geek and someone who has to try and understand several different governance models within a tertiary education provider, I decided to interrogate this area as part of my Masters in Student Engagement and Higher Education at the University of Winchester.

Accessed via a helicopter

For those unaware, the University of the Highlands and Islands really is quite unique. There are several places of education (known as academic partners or APs) that exist within the Highlands and Islands, Morayshire and Perthshire that make up the UHI.

This means that our geographical spread is about the same size as Belgium, and means our student body, whilst equitable to some other education providers in Scotland, are vastly spread out within a huge region.

Engaging with and representing students can be a challenge for any students’ association, let alone one that operates within multiple AP’s and one centralised body known as Executive Office.

Rather than being despondent about it, and because I had an assignment to do, I decided to research governance more widely. The aim was to look at a way that we as a student association could support our officers and student board members so we could ensure their contributions were impactful.

Rather than assume that research would tell us what to do, consultation happened with elected officers, our staff members within the students’ association based at AP’s, and representatives from each board of management.

That equates to 39 interviews, by the way.

Meetings bloody meetings

Our findings on students’ experiences of meetings were fascinating, and included:

  • A lack of clarity around the role of student board members and how they can contribute effectively to meetings
  • A need for more training and support to help officers understand their role and responsibilities
  • A desire for more opportunities to network and share best practices with other officers and board members
  • A need for more effective communication and engagement between officers and board members, including clearer agendas and more timely distribution of meeting papers
  • A desire for more recognition and appreciation of the work that officers do, and more opportunities to celebrate successes and share achievements.

Meanwhile HISA staff highlighted:

  • A need for more time and resources to support officers and staff in their roles
  • A desire for more training, support, and development opportunities for officers and staff, as well as a standardised process for second student board member recruitment
  • Challenges around officer engagement and attendance, as well as perceptions of HISA officers among board members and staff being fed back informally
  • Challenges around accessing meeting papers and preparing for meetings, as well as uncertainty around how to provide feedback to student voice reps
  • Suggestions for local staff to attend or observe board meetings to better support officers and second student board members, as well as for officers to meet with staff members as impartial advisers prior to meetings.

Providing and asking

The interviews gave the project team and I food for thought on how important support is in terms of providing and asking. That applies to our staff as well. As we are a huge student association, and due to the region that we operate in, many of our staff will be new to the movement, so upscaling our staff is a key consideration for us.

It was also quite interesting to see how relationships and expectations on board members helped shape perceptions of their effectiveness – both from HISA and the board of managements’ perspectives.

What came out consistently was the value that was placed on the student voice in these meetings, meaning that at least we can make sure that these AP’s boards are operating within the Code of Good Governance for Scotland’s Colleges.

Our next steps are about creating a consistent framework where each academic partner from HISA could ensure student board members are supported and empowered to be effective member, and amplify the student voice on meetings that help decide how the student experience can be shaped.

We have created an action plan to do just this which is included in our Board of Management Project Report that we will spend this academic year implementing across the partnership.

Given that Scotland is looking to move towards an integrated “tertiary education” sector as a nation, and how unique UHI is in having operated in such a space, the lessons learned could be useful for the rest of Scotland and potentially the rest of UK.

Ensuring that students sitting at any high-level decision making have the support that they need is a task we should all seek to achieve – but what has been made clear from our work in this area is that those involved need to be asked.

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One response to “Supporting students to be effective on university boards

  1. As University Secretary at UHI it was great to read about your work Aimee and look forward to reading the report. We must have a chat!

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