Is collective student engagement still a thing?

Representative democracy has come in for a bit of a hard time recently. Should we trust the people we elect to make decisions on our behalf or should we all get a say? What happens when elected representatives make decisions that we either don’t agree with or when we believe that the decision isn’t representative of the views of the people they are supposed to represent?

At a time when these questions are being asked about our national political system it is right that we scrutinise the student academic representative systems that make up the backbone of student engagement within higher education. This is even more important given the renewed focus that the new Quality Code, and OfS Conditions of Registration, have placed on collective student engagement:

The provider actively engages students, individually and collectively, in the quality of their educational experience.” Quality Code, 2018

National perceptions survey

This renewed focus on collective student engagement provides a timely opportunity to explore perceptions of student academic representation. It is also ten years since the last major research into perceptions of student representation conducted by the Open University’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI) for HEFCE.

For my research I conducted a survey of English higher education institutions with degree awarding powers, seeking a response from both the institution and the students’ union, getting 59 responses from students’ unions (46% response rate) and 60 from institutions (47% response rate).

Perceptions of the effectiveness

In overall terms the perceptions of both institutions and students’ unions about the effectiveness of student representation is very high. At the institution-wide committee level 93.3% of respondents from HEIs believed representation to be “very” or “reasonably” effective with 89.6% of respondents from students’ unions agreeing.

However, this headline figure masks many differences – at different levels of representation within institutions, across institutions, staff views of representation and perceptions of the effectiveness of institutional committee structures more widely. This suggests that despite the focus on student academic representation since the CHERI report there is still more that can be done to enhance collective student engagement.

Department/Faculty level

Looking at the perceptions of the effectiveness of student representation at the department/faculty level, there are high levels of agreement – if significantly below perceptions at institution-wide level. 72.9% of respondents from institutions agreed that representation was “very” or “reasonably” effective and similar proportions from students’ union respondents (72.4%).

Interestingly there is now much greater agreement between students’ union and institutional respondents than the CHERI research. In 2009 87% of HEI respondents thought student representation to be effective at the department/faculty level compared to 52% of students’ union respondents. This greater agreement in responses might suggest that there is at least a better shared understanding of the purpose of student representation structures now between institutions and students’ unions.

However, whilst the greater alignment of views is positive the 20% difference in the perception of the effectiveness between institution-wide and department/faculty committee representation is worth exploring in more detail, and is something that each institution might want to consider in their own context. One possible explanation is that in response to a question about whether the student representatives were actually representative of the views of students only 8.6% of respondents from either students’ unions or institutions believed representatives to be “very” representative. There was also a view that this “representativeness” varied across the institution, with 28.3% of respondents from institutions believing that it varied “a lot” and even more worryingly this increased to 62.1% of respondents from students’ unions.

Staff/student liaison committees

Interestingly whilst there was a strong level of agreement between the respondents from HEIs and students’ unions in the 2018 survey about the effectiveness of representation at the institution and departmental/faculty level this was less true at the staff/student liaison committee level. Institutions are more positive about staff/student liaison committees with 93.3% of HEIs respondents agreed that representation was “very” or “reasonably” effective compared to 77.6% amongst students’ union responses.

This might be due to a difference in the views of the representativeness of student representatives on these committees. Whereas 88.3% of respondents from HEIs believed student representatives to be “very” or “reasonably” representative this dropped to 77.6% amongst students’ union respondents.

It should however be noted that both students’ union and institutional respondents were significantly more likely to agree that representation on staff/student liaison committees was “very” representative compared to institution-wide committees and department/faculty meetings. With 28.3% of institutional respondents and 31% of students’ union respondents agreeing compared to either the institution-wide level (6.8%) or department/faculty level (8.6%).

Engaging staff

The Advice and Guidance on student engagement published in November as part of the Quality Code has a series of reflective questions to consider. One of which is “What support do you offer students and staff to support the structures?” this point about staff supporting student engagement is a key, but often forgotten element, to enhancing student engagement.

The survey asked about the perceptions of respondents about whether “academic staff see the value of engaging students in representation activities?” Whilst 84.4% of respondents from HEIs thought that “all” or “most” academic staff saw the value of engaging students this fell to 54.7% of respondents from students’ unions. Whichever view is closer to truth it does highlight a telling gap in the perceptions of students’ unions and HEIs and suggests that there is more that could be done to support all staff see the benefits of student engagement. One possibility could include training for staff. Whilst almost 40% of institutions said that they provided training for staff almost 45% of respondents didn’t offer training to staff on engaging students effectively.

So what?

Student academic representation is rightly seen as largely effective and representative but there are a number of ways in which it could be further enhanced. This could include developing shared ideas of the purpose of student representation between students’ unions and their institution, support for student representatives to be more representative of the wider student body as well as considering how staff can be better supported to get the most out of student engagement.

The survey provides a rich source of data which I am exploring as part of my doctorate and I look forward to being able to present more findings in due course.

5 responses to “Is collective student engagement still a thing?

  1. As a fully paid up ‘life’ member of the NUS from the 1970’s I had my employer drive a very staged vote for the Universities SU to cede power from the NUS to a University controlled committee in the 1990’s, since then both the local vociferous SU officers and the NUS seem to have lost their way. Whilst they espouse inclusiveness they exclude many and actively no-platform those whose voices should be heard, vigorously debated and reasoned with to negotiate a positive way forward, ignorance cannot be beaten with further ignorance, only with information and education.

    When a SU becomes a self sustaining and reinforcing ideological body, some refer to the ‘echo chamber’ effect, it comes as little surprise that most students don’t vote in student union elections, so those elected represent a tiny minority with similar often hard-line unreasoned and unreasoning views where imposition is the norm and petulant child like demands are all they can produce.

    Perhaps asking a broad range of students, not the elected and/or paid student union officers, would be a more rewarding source of information for the Universities, and the Students Unions?

  2. Did you read this article at all? Which is almost exclusively about academic representatives, most of whom aren’t the SU Officers you so inaccurately pigeonhole…

  3. A great piece, Alex – and useful to see the change in the 10 years since the last piece of research on the topic. I see the value in you mirroring the methodology of that study in 09, so that results are comparable… however, I do think the idea of a single response for each HEI and SU leaves a lot to desire in the reliability of the data.

    I suspect that within each institution, there would be highly varying perceptions of the strength of student representative systems; across academics in different departments, students from typically hard to engage backgrounds, those who work directly in student engagement teams, elected SU officers and more. It’d be interesting to know the breakdown of where the institutional responses came from.

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