Wonkhe 360: what did SUs have to say?

Wonkhe 360 is our in-depth exploration of how policy-engaged people working at the front line of higher education view the current policy environment – and its impact on higher education organisations.

There were plenty of SU types involved in our panel – and here we present a flavour of what the SU sector is saying about the state of higher education in 2019.

What do Brexit and Augar auger?

The ability of Brexit to gobble up policy bandwidth – delaying Augar’s review of Post-18 education, is having a profound effect on SUs ability to have optimistic strategic conversations within institutions.

“Everything seems to be on hold pending the outcomes of Brexit and Augar. It just means there’s a sort of stasis in the institution – it’s like the place is on auto-pilot and decisions on anything other than the smallest things are getting put into the sidelines or put off indefinitely.”

“With Brexit and Augar right around the corner, it is hard to feel positive about my organisation’s future prospects. The impact it will have on higher education will be hugely detrimental to the sector and has the potential to cause massive losses of income to institutions and this will undoubtedly impact on their ability to look after their student populations.”

The way universities are governed

There are some interesting themes in the responses on university decision making. Governance comes in for critique – they are considered to be out of touch and unrepresentative of the communities they serve or issues facing the student body. And many of the responses point to slow formal decision making, but a faster pace to external events – leaving crucial scrutiny and opportunities for proper student input lacking.

“University governance is a monoculture. All business experience and focus on capital estates (there is a space for this, but diverse experiences need to be respected on governing bodies); there is a dangerous group-think amongst university governors that have met. I don’t think I can recall a meaningful conversation about student support, wellbeing or, god forbid, the purpose of a university education in the current political economy.”

“The pace of change at an organisational level is making proper consideration and consultation difficult and leading to bad decision making”

What students are saying

Wonkhe 360 is not a representative sample of student opinion – but the responses in the survey do point to fundamental shifts in the way students think of themselves and the issues they are raising.

“Students are currently re-evaluating what being at university means and the kind of things that universities should be offering them. With student mental health and wellbeing becoming more prominent, students are challenging institutions on this. This is even having an impact on how students unions view themselves. We’re always told that academia is our number one priority, but based on findings, we’re increasingly seeing that mental health support is a number one priority for students.”

“Value for Money in students is a huge factor in making change in HE at the moment. With students paying the fees that they do, and postgraduate fees getting more attention, students are increasingly asking the question of “what are we paying for?” I think this is leading to more focus around things like classroom experience and what else people can get from their university. “

“There are also issues with attendance caused by students’ mental health and financial circumstances which are impacting on their ability to get a good degree. They are getting worse, but seem to be considered as impossible – or worse, timeless with no real solution in sight”

“Student disputes are more complex than ever due to digital channels and easy student-to-student connections. A minor issue experienced by one or two students broadcast over Whatsapp (or worse Twitter) to an entire cohort or student base is damaging. Something that 5, 10, 15 years ago just wasn’t an issue.”

“I would say that the student body is not particularly interested in the things that the sector presumes they are. Students care about the things that affect them on a day-to-day basis – things like the costs they face, and the financial support they receive – but the discussion of how much fees should be, or what the TEF should be based of, don’t hold the same sway over them. Too often the approach seems to be to approach students to ask them about those top-level issues, and not enough is done to fix the little day-to-day issues that make a big difference to their experience.”

“The students I meet are not like the “snowflake” stereotype that they are portrayed to be in the media. On the whole they work hard, are focused and want to make the most of their time at University. They seem to drink, mess about and party a lot less than my generation! They are interested in social justice, environmental sustainability, equality and inclusion. In contrast, they often exhibit consumerist behaviour in education that I find difficult to understand. As a sector we need to find a partnership model that treats their expectation and concerns seriously without acceding to “demands”.

Influencing policy

Nationally, there is considerable pessimism that students’ unions could have a real influence over the direction of major policy areas. Data is proving to be a key issue. But locally relationship building is seen as having a real impact.

“I would welcome more opportunities to be involved in helping to shape policy at a national level, but I don’t feel sufficiently aware of the opportunities to do so apart from very irregular consultations.”

“OfS is not easy to engage with. There appears to be a group of people they like to consult with and that they are consulted on everything.”

“In the institution data, surveys and analytics seems to be overtaking us as authentic student voice. Senior people are more likely to listen to what the planning department is telling them than us – but we are sruglling to be allowed proper access to data so we can represent students effectively”

“I think that there should be somewhere or someway for academic rep coordinators to develop their policy knowledge. Now that we’re out of the era of QAA reviews and the QAA providing benchmarks for student engagement etc, there seems to be a skills gap as people coming through into these positions don’t necessarily need to have that knowledge in order to carry out their job. Which leaves us lacking I think”

“In terms of our relationship between the SU and the University, we’re really developing our partnership and the way that we work together and respect each other. I’m hopeful that we’ll have a better working relationship, which will in turn only benefit students and their experiences.

The full Wonkhe 360 report is available for download, along with an introduction to the project, and blogs on learning from leaders & the end of the sector, and what’s it like to be a woman in higher education policy.

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