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Engaging students as partners: two steps forward, one step back

The trend in HE policy has been to give greater weight to genuine student engagement - but the quality code and OfS regulatory framework feel like a retreat from this. Xenia Levantis and Alex Bols have the detail.
This article is more than 6 years old

Xenia Levantis is the President of the Norwich University of the Arts Students’ Union

Alex Bols is Deputy Chief Executive at GuildHE

The last decade has seen significant steps to better engage students in their learning. Students’ unions have focused on the professionalisation of student representation, universities take student feedback more seriously and have developed numerous student engagement schemes to support this, and all of these activities have been underpinned by the evidence-base provided by the National Student Survey and other sources. This has resulted in student engagement moving through the different stages on the “arrow of engagement” from simply consulting students, through involvement and participation to partnership.  

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the Expectation in Section B5 of the Quality Code, published by the QAA in 2012, that:

Higher education providers take deliberate steps to engage all students, individually and collectively, as partners in the assurance and enhancement of their educational experience

Passive listening

It therefore feels something of a backward step that the current UKSCQA Quality Code consultation emphasises a somewhat more passive approach.

The proposed Quality Code relegates student engagement to a “supplementary practice” – prioritising student feedback in the Core Practices. The Core Practice that the “Views and feedback from students are regularly sought and acted on and providers offer feedback in return” is welcome, and indeed an essential part of student engagement, however Seale (2010) suggests “there is evidence that treating students as evaluators or informants can result in a rather one-way relationship between staff and students”.

Engaging students as partners in their education, emphasising co-production of knowledge and the importance of student representation is an essential feature of UK higher education, and should be prioritised as such. Indeed, we would argue that student engagement is an essential component of the character of UK higher education – it reflects “higher learning” and co-production, and it’s something the UK has built and is envied for – as such we ought to expect it in all providers of HE.

This de-prioritisation in the Quality Code consultation is particularly disappointing when read in association with the TEF and the OfS Consultation.

For students?

The TEF has limited opportunities for student input, particularly when compared to the previous quality assurance review mechanisms such as the Higher Education Review. This included a “Student Written Submission” that students’ unions submitted alongside the institutions report, giving students’ unions the opportunity to reflect on the quality of the student learning experience at their institution. Whilst the DfE’s Consultation on the Office for Students makes little or no reference to engaging students, student representatives and students’ unions feature in the registration conditions or monitoring indicators for institutions. The establishment of a centralised regulatory body that is “for Students” that doesn’t deem it essential for student consultation to be embedded​ in all aspects of student life is disappointing.

This shift away from student directed input and consultation undermines the idea of students as partners. Engaging students as partners in their learning with continual engagement, contribution and discussion should be championed by the OfS, articulating the value of student engagement and entrenching student representation in all aspects of commentary and activity being used to inform decisions.

Students have to see they are being valued in order to value the mechanisms, but students are increasingly wise to their feedback being used to tick a box and not for genuine understanding.

High-water mark

GuildHE is proud of the relationship between our institutions and students and students’ unions and considers student engagement one of our core values. Our report Making student engagement a reality showcased case studies from our members for how student engagement can be better embedded in institutions.

We would therefore encourage institutions and students’ unions to respond to both the Quality Code Consultation – to include reference to students as partners as a Core Practice – and the DfE regulatory framework Consultation – that the OfS consider how it might embed student engagement in its monitoring and registration processes.

When the 2012 Quality Code was first published some commented that it wasn’t ambitious enough, just restating practice common in most universities. We are now in danger of that Code being seen as the high water-mark for student engagement.

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