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From student representation to student partnership

Roni Bamber reflects on a 20 year journey through quality enhancement in Scotland
This article is more than 1 year old

Roni Bamber is professor emerita of higher education at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. 

Back in the 1970s, you may have read Gail Sheehy’s “Passages” about how successful development depends on negotiating the passages, or transitions, between lifecycle stages.

If someone had written about transitions in universities back then, my own journey could have been smoother!

Thankfully, much has now been written about the challenges inherent in moving between stages when studying – and the Scottish enhancement approach has contributed significantly to this body of knowledge.

Negotiating transitions

I’ve been excited by the change process across 20 years, during which Scotland’s enhancement approach has evolved on many fronts. We started with no template to follow; the universities, sector agencies and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) started from scratch, and gradually faced transitions from one stage to the next.

What we learned through negotiating these transitions is reflected not only in the many outputs, but also, perhaps more importantly, in understanding how to “do” enhancement, especially in how we speak and write about it, and how we collaborate to best effect. We evolved strategies, structures and systems to help us explain what we were doing, how and how well. Concepts such as evidence-informed practice, collaborative working, student partnership and staff engagement are now in common use. So how did we get here?

Looking back, what strikes me most is that as mutual trust between agencies and institutions grew, so did an implicit commitment to developing a quality culture in which staff and students could work together to manage complex change. Make no mistake, this was far from straightforward! It’s hard to put any kind of framework on what was, inevitably, messy. However, while now in danger of being overused, I still find Peters and Waterman’s 7S framework a useful tool in conceptualising complex change. Reflecting on the seven key elements of Structure, Strategy, Systems, Skills, Style, Staff and Shared values supports a holistic approach (useful when focusing on enhancement across 19 institutions), as change in one element affects others. Synchronising these elements meant quality enhancement striking out in a radically different approach to externally imposed, top-down quality assurance processes. A big ask!

Engaging in change

Ironically, the easier part of this was dealing with the hard elements of strategy, structures and systems. After all, QAA and university senior managers could suggest, or even mandate, these. Many transitions happened in these areas. In 2014 we transitioned from a Steering Group to a Theme Leaders’ Group (structures) to help institutional representatives identify more clearly with their roles as leaders. Strategically, we transitioned from “stuff development” to “staff development” – from producing learned tomes to engaging staff and students in change. With evolving insights into universities as social systems, we focused increasingly on engaging everyone from senior managers to professional services and subject discipline colleagues.

More challenging were the soft elements of shared values, style, staff and skills, the very elements that get people working together towards common goals. Helpfully, those leading the enhancement approach (sector agencies, institutional representatives, and, increasingly, students) kept asking tough questions to push perceived boundaries. How do senior managers develop a management style which encourages institutional and sectoral collaboration and reflective risk-taking? How to engage staff with enhancement, achieve a shared vision of quality, and agree on how to get there? How do we engage with staff to develop the ever-changing skills needed?

Inevitably, the soft elements took us into long-held, habitual ways of thinking and practising. We took a collective deep breath as we contemplated appropriate ways to engage with the learning and teaching practices of mathematicians, historians and vets, or the student support systems in research-focused and teaching-led institutions. Gradually, we evolved a “tight-loose” methodology for working together, combining guidance and resources with allowance for local differences and priorities. Institutions were encouraged to promote policies and practices which were tight (for example, every student to have academic and pastoral support) but loose in local implementation, perhaps with different arrangements in each subject area. A strategic move to help institutions work collaboratively turned into ‘collaborative clusters’ for their prioritised projects.

From representation to partnership

Confidence in the enhancement approach grew and we transitioned from student representation towards student partnership, and the 7S framework needed another S – the vital eighth element being students. Student engagement in quality is a pillar of the enhancement approach. Making this happen in more than name only, underwent many transitions and continues to evolve. For each Theme, discussions about student engagement produced innovations, such as providing funding for student-led projects (strategy) and extending the Theme Leaders’ Group to include equal staff and student numbers (structure). Indeed, changing cultures towards greater student agency was implicit in each transition. An equal focus on evidence and evaluation meant that our successes and failures were apparent and had to be tackled in the next transition.

So, what comes next for the Scottish enhancement approach? The 8Ss of quality enhancement are again at the fore of our thinking, following the SFC’s Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability. We will transition into a tertiary sector, which draws together the existing further and higher education sectors, with new quality arrangements. 20 years’ experience of enhancement-focused transitions, and the lessons learned about working collaboratively within complex cultures, engaging staff and students, and paying attention to all the interlinked elements of the 8S framework will continue to help us shape our changing future.

Student Transitions was also an Enhancement Themes topic (2014-17) with resources updated as part of our 20-year celebrations of the enhancement approach.

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