The pain, potential and promise of university policy

Policy and regulation are scary words to many, but especially if you are a student about to take up a position in a students’ union. They certainly were to me.

Many sabbatical officers are thrown into the deep end – into a world of higher education policy and regulation which they will likely have never come into contact with before. And not only are they expect to understand the local and national policy landscape and how it all fits together, if we follow Bradley Fox’s argument they should become active participants in the creation and revision of that policy on behalf of others.

I’ve been very lucky during my time as an officer to have been shown just how impactful policy can be, thanks in particular to staff who made me curious about what made our institution tick. And yet we’re fast approaching the time of year where old teams of officers depart and new ones arrive. They bring with them a whole host of new manifesto commitments, enthusiasm for their new role and the opportunity to engage with policy in new and exciting ways. What can we do to help them be impactful?

Policy pains

Picture this – you’re a new Sabbatical Officer, sitting down at your desk during your first week in office. You’ve just about worked out how outlook works (us Gen Z types aren’t huge users of email) and are getting used to the fact that your “office” doesn’t have a sink. You check your next meeting – it is the committee that looks after academic standards and policy at the university.

Three hours later you leave the meeting. You now know more acronyms than you ever thought existed, and more about the ins-and-outs of dissertation regulations for Masters’ students that you’d ever need to know. You provided input where you were able to do so, but honestly just didn’t understand a lot of it.

There are two problems at play here:

  1. Student officers can see university policy as inherently boring and tied up in complex governance processes which are difficult to understand. They instead see much more value in “quick wins”, providing tangible results (and credit) in far less time.
  2. Universities know that students (and their representatives) need to be involved in the review of policy and processes, yet aren’t sure how interested they are or how to engage them.

What emerges is a self-defeating cycle where policies are created and reviewed without meaningful student engagement.

Policy potential

In my view influencing policy remains one of the most powerful (if underused) tools that SUs have access to to deliver manifesto commitments and the student interest. For example:

Academic integrity. As the sector continues to attract media attention as it comes to terms with contract cheating and essay mills we have been making a proactive effort at Southampton to educate our students and review our current provision. I’m currently working alongside a fledgeling network of Academic Integrity Officers to provide institution-wide solutions to what can all too often be an unintentional mistake by students. There are – as you would expect – campaigns underway to raise awareness of academic integrity issues, but all of this is underpinned by policy work and review. This example is made more interesting as it is a blend of both union and university policy – we have set out our guiding principles already and will be working with the institution to ensure that they are embedded as part of any formal policy provision going forward.

Curriculum diversity: The second example is one that my colleague Emily is currently working on as part of a project looking at diversifying our taught curriculum. She is working with a group of students from our BAME community to create a “diversity checklist”, against which every taught programme and module can be compared in order to ensure that they are truly diverse and accessible to all. This list is powerful as a standalone item but is significantly also forming part of a much broader review of our regulations around programme validation. It is our hope that this checklist will become a mandatory part of any programme validation, and thus ensuring that within a couple of years all our taught programmes will have to be compliant with this student-created checklist resident within university policy.

I could go on. This example from Edinburgh – where the students’ association and the university have collaborated on a new policy surrounding the disclosure of relationships between staff and students – aiming to minimise risks and protecting the wellbeing of all at the university – is another good example. In truth, there are very few issues which can’t be directly linked to policy in one way or another.

Manifesto commitments such as lecture capture (included in both of my campaigns), exciting new representation structures for research students (another one I featured), mental health provision and even participation in sports all lend themselves well to becoming enshrined somewhere in university governance or policy. These are big-ticket items which hold considerable currency within the student population – hence their success as manifesto priorities. A policy-driven approach so often falls to the wayside when officers first come into their role – but it’s both SUs and universities’ job to identify the policy themes and implications from manifesto commitments, survey findings and student feedback.

Policy promise

So we know that policy is powerful and when well thought-out also lasts a long time. And so what can we do to bring together university policy and representative bodies? A lot of this comes down to training – ensuring that new officers are sufficiently up-to-speed on the landscape at their own institution and how engaging with policy can benefit them and the students they represent. It needs to be seen not solely as the end product but rather the process and means to achieve the true end product – an improvement to the student experience.

Policy also needs to be approachable and accessible to all, and SUs have a key role in holding institutions to account on this point. This will not only ensure that new officers can engage meaningfully with consultation around policy but will ensure that the wider student body is able to do the same. It needs to be easy to read, easy to understand and easy to find. Perhaps most significantly it needs to have relevance to students. This is why manifesto commitments make good policy – they have already proven their relevance and just need to be made permanent. And, of course, the same principles can be applied nationally to the work of the office for students and the regulatory role that it plays.

Policy also need to be implemented. Too many student officers around the country say that they know the university has a policy on X or Y, but because the effort in the university is all on deliberation and creation rather than dissemination, implementation or monitoring, policy ends up being ineffective. If a policy sets out a university’s expectations around student feedback but some haven’t seen it, and some ignore it, is it wise to have a culture where that only gets picked up once NSS results come out?

And finally we need to get better at celebrating the positives that good policy can bring about. Its longevity, for example, allows unions and universities to break out of a cycle of short-term fixes which don’t last from one officer team to the next. And they provide a welcome degree of constancy and permanency, with benefits being realised well after the officer themselves has left their role.

Policy can’t solve all of our problems (although maybe there should be a policy about private study and access to hydration), but it does provide an exciting way to ensure long-term change and improvement to the benefit of unions, universities and ultimately students. It might seem like an unlikely partnership at first, but given time is full of potential and promise.

This article is based on the views of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Southampton, the University of Southampton Students’ Union or the Office for Students.

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