Why we need a new benchmark for academic representation (and how you can get involved)

Ashley Storer-Smith is Student Voice Manager at the University of Nottingham SU

Tom Lowe is the Chair of the RAISE Network and a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth.

Since the professionalisation of students’ unions to develop student representation and voice teams, all UK universities follow the Quality Code’s Student Engagement Theme to embed student-staff engagement in voice activities across their provision.

Student engagement in the development of education through student voice activities such as student academic representation at course level is assumed as a sector norm in the UK.

The last time we had a benchmarking system that was sector-wide was the TSEP/NUS benchmark which was comprehensive and easy to use – but is over a decade old.

Over a decade ago, it was not heard of to have more than just a one or two tiered system, not elect representatives, or even discuss payment of representatives.

As people who have done multiple reviews of Academic Reps for our jobs, the sector has drastically changed – but we don’t have the evidence for it. At least not yet.

The sector is changing

From our initial research with 20 SUs, it seems there are numerous case studies of stepping away from democratic elections and volunteer unpaid roles to introduce appointed and paid student representatives – and there is a sector discourse on how to reward these participations.

In addition, many universities have changed the forum where the student-staff dialogue about education takes place, from course committee meetings to student-staff liaison committees or even whole class/school events.

In addition, practice with Student Voice / Feedback Surveys is under review, with many institutions moving from extensive use of Module Evaluation Surveys due to reported survey fatigue and impossibilities with closing so many feedback loops.

Innovation in programme and year level evaluations are occurring – yet there is no sector temperature check on current practices.

Beyond course level representation schemes, many universities and students’ unions are experimenting in this space to create new ways of engaging students both locally in professional service areas and strategically across universities.

It is well known that many universities now fund student-staff partnership research projects at institutions such as the University of Westminster, University of Oxford and University of Hull – yet our work looks beyond project based partnership to explore the practices in more innovative student voice spaces.

Practices such as the Student Academic Council at the University of Winchester providing engaging students with senior leaders, the Student Co-Design Panel at the University of Southampton engaging 100 students a year to meet to talk on student experience matters, Student Voice Assistants (one per academic school) paid 8 hours a week to work on student experience innovation at the University of Portsmouth, and School Action Days at the University of Lincoln, are all examples of adaptive student centred approaches in the current context.

What’s going on?

With apparent sector variance and innovation, there is an urgent need to explore this innovation and draw lines between this activity with traditional student representative schemes outline above, as well as their greater connectedness with wider SU elected officers (such as Vice President, Education). Our study will therefore focus on:

  • University level student voice committees / initiatives (such as Student Academic Councils and Student Consultative Boards)
  • University wide survey practice
  • Module evaluation practice at course level
  • Faculty / School level practice in Student Voice / Representation
  • Course Level Representation Practice

The project – supported by the QAA – is seeking survey responses from as many SUs as possible to explore student engagement practice with course level representatives, and identify innovative practice in the space of university wide consultation committees.

In the same collection, we will also take the opportunity to gather practice on course level evaluations and university wide surveys.

For those universities and students’ unions who express interest in further participation in the study, a report will be created to showcase best practice to tell success stories from the field to inform practice both in the UK and beyond.

This is where you come in. Our survey is now live and closes at the end of September. So that we are able to create this comprehensive review and create a new benchmarking system, we need you to fill out the survey and share with your colleagues within SUs and Universities that lead on Academic Representation Systems.

There is also an opportunity between October-December to discuss your best practice and have that shared across the sector. Make sure you say that you are happy to be contacted in the Survey.

Link to the survey

Project Partners

  • University of Nottingham Students’ Union
  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Portsmouth Students’ Union
  • University of Portsmouth
  • University of Oxford Students’ Union
  • University of Oxford
  • Newman University Students’ Union
  • Newman University
  • University of Highlands and Islands Students’ Association

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