Engaging students in decision-making processes, designing the curriculum and widening access programmes is commendable and desirable, but are student engagement practitioners too content with giving themselves a pat on the back for new initiatives?
We have to challenge ourselves to ensure that these initiatives are equitable and accessible, and include students who may not have the time, resources or confidence to engage in these types of activities.
Where are we?
Student engagement work has proliferated across the sector since 2007, when the Quality Assurance Agency proposed that students should become members of institutional review panels. Since then, educational developers have increasingly talked about how to engage students in learning, and in their wider higher education journey. NUS has likewise placed pressure on universities to open up their processes and committees to allow students to engage in decision making.
Several UK sector developments, such as tuition fee increases, increased emphasis on student outcomes, a focus on student satisfaction, and many attempts to embed students in the enhancement process have led to a vast array of projects being branded as student engagement. Despite local funding issues, the sector continues to drive the student engagement agenda – even rejecting attempts to remove student engagement from the quality code.
Although this battle was won, the differences in practice across the UK are becoming more apparent, with a risk-based and outcome-focused approach in England versus an enhancement-led approach in Scotland and Wales. More generally, practitioners across all nations are grappling with how student engagement can be truly inclusive and diverse. Student-staff partnership schemes have become common practice at most institutions but who and how many students are really engaging and benefitting?
Making time for self-reflection
Student engagement work also involves thinking about resourcing, scalability and evidencing impact. How can we demonstrate cause and effect to our institutions and the wider sector, especially when the outcomes of an initiative may not be imminently evident or directly linked to the project aims? Has a student engagement initiative failed when it hasn’t met its key performance indicators, or is it more important that the students participating gained skills and confidence, regardless of the outcome?
This leads us to be more self-reflective – what’s the purpose of student engagement, and is it always a good thing? Some argue that because participation in higher education is voluntary, we must be cautious about imposing an authoritative approach to measuring student engagement which requires students to conform to internally defined metrics – for example, participation in classes or extra-curricular activities.
Let’s start at the very beginning
Student engagement has come to mean many things to many people, and while we don’t have any solutions to the challenges outlined, we can start with taking the time to understand our student demographics, as well as the experiences, aspirations and challenges of our individual students. And when we ask students to join projects, we have to be careful that we don’t simply engage students we see regularly in classes – we need to reach out beyond them.
Catherine Bovill at the University of Edinburgh has argued that the first five minutes of being in a new classroom setting can be crucial for building positive and inclusive relationships with students, which are the foundations for shared decision making and co-creation. The next time we set up a student engagement project, let’s think about those first interactions, who we engage and how they want to engage with us. We must make sure that our personal interactions are meaningful before we develop our engagement work.
Raise is a network bringing together staff and students in higher education across the world who are working in or are interested in researching and promoting student engagement. Their next annual conference will take place in Lincoln in September 2020.