Eve Lewis is Director of sparqs

Teaching quality enhancement relies on an effective partnership with students, where well-equipped student experts play an integral role in institutional self-evaluation and enhancement planning.

The culture of openness, trust and collegiality, itself essential to an enhancement approach, is fundamental to developing partnerships with students.

Student engagement (SE), one of the 5 pillars of the Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF), has been instrumental in the success of Scotland’s enhancement-led approach to quality over the last 20 years. And conversely, it is this enhancement approach that has created the environment where SE has flourished.

Today, in Scotland, the role of students in quality processes is not just widely accepted, but fiercely defended, with each new revision of the quality arrangements challenging the sector “to be ambitious in seeking opportunities for student partnership in the co-creation of learning” (as stated in the SFC guidance to colleges and universities).

A historic shift

This has not happened by accident. A national agency, student partnerships in quality Scotland (sparqs), has been funded consistently by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) since 2003. Since then, sparqs changed its name from “participation” to “partnerships” (back in May 2015) and has worked across the sector on initiatives that include extensive student training programmes, the Student Engagement Framework for Scotland and Student Partnership Agreements. It supports students to engage fully, not only in the quality enhancement activities within institutions and the broader Enhancement Themes work being managed by Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in Scotland (QAAS), but also in the development and implementation of our enhancement-led external quality review arrangements themselves, with students playing key roles within the review approaches implemented by QAAS.

Yet historically, the role of students in shaping learning and teaching has not always been accepted. In Rape of Reason, which documented student unrest at the Polytechnic of North London in the early 1970s, we find this statement:

An academy is NOT a community of equals and cannot be run as a democracy or partnership (meaning equal representation of staff and students) the justifications of democracy in society at large do not apply in the special circumstances of the academy …

From representation to enhancement

In the 1990s, I was working in a Scottish students’ association. We would have described our relationship with the university as positive and we enjoyed its support in providing a range of valued student services, but we didn’t work on quality assurance processes beyond limited support for the course representative system. The majority of academic staff were indifferent about the role students might want to play in learning and teaching strategic developments (called just teaching at the time, but that’s another story).

When suggesting the students’ association might lead some research and contribute to a modularisation review, the University wasn’t so much resistant to the idea as incredulous as to why we would want to, and sceptical about our ability to offer anything useful. Equally, it was difficult to convince the students that they should engage with it. Focus groups failed to get more than 2 or 3 students and those that did come were more interested in advocating for the path of least resistance than discussing ways to adapt modular approaches that developed deep learning and skills development.

The introduction of the enhancement-led approach to quality as articulated in the QEF in 2003 fundamentally transformed that. The then ground-breaking approach developed collectively across the Scottish university sector and shaped by key thinkers within QAA, SFC and the National Union of Students (NUS) changed not only the approach to quality but also the way we valued and supported the contribution of students.  That same university I was working in transformed the way it worked with students and by 2012 attributed successes such as being Scotland’s University of the Year to the strong working partnership they had developed.

Students on reviews

An early manifestation of SE within the QEF was the introduction of student reviewers as full members of review teams – a bold and ground-breaking practice at the time, and now much more widespread across the world; and whilst there was much excitement at the time, not everyone was convinced. I remember a senior institutional leader whispering to me in a meeting, words to the effect:

how very interesting, it looks good, but it will never work, students won’t be interested

But it did work – students took on the role of reviewers in external review and they quickly demonstrated the value they brought to the process. This experience led to students being included as members of institution-led review processes. The practice was enthusiastically adopted and subsequently incorporated into quality arrangements.


Scotland’s enhancement-led approach to quality supported institutions to identify ways to work more closely with students and begin honest dialogues. Practices receiving commendations in review reports, such as joint approaches to developing student representation systems, contributed to a growing recognition that the relationship between enhancement and SE was a symbiotic one – universities and students’ associations working together could enhance the quality of the student learning experience and effectively address challenges.

We quickly moved from a situation where students were rarely invited to strategic learning and teaching forums, to this being the norm. When further iterations of the QEF were developed, students found they were pushing at an open door, institutional leaders were asking for more SE – they could see it worked. The trust and responsibility placed on new student officer roles and the support provided locally and nationally saw a transformation in the ability of student reps at all levels to engage in complex discussions around key enhancement topics.

Today, students have key roles in the mechanisms that identify and shape the Enhancement Themes and lead innovative projects – Digital Student Communities and Promoting the Equity of the Student Learning Experience are recent examples of national student-led projects. These projects, examples of the sort of impact students are now having on the student learning experience, recognise that, as those with direct lived experiences of learning, students are uniquely placed to identify what they need to thrive in education and to create resources by students for students.

An old battle, refought

But we cannot be complacent. In a recent article on decolonisation by Richard Norrie in the Mail we find:

But in what way are the young and uneducated equipped to tell the old and experienced what should be taught?

Perhaps today I can claim to be old and experienced, but every day I am challenged to approach my work with a fresh perspective because of the input of the students I work with, some of whom are young, but many of whom bring a vast richness of experiences and maturity with them. Isn’t that the very essence of enhancement?

The partnership we promote values all perspectives. It is only by working together that we can meet the challenges of a future many of us do not yet understand.

As we work towards a tertiary approach to quality arrangements in Scotland that assures and enhances the student experience across complex learner journeys, it is only by continuing to work in partnership with our students that we will be able to understand those journeys. Certainly, within the community of senior institutional leaders that lead quality enhancement activities in Scotland, there is no longer any doubt that students have the ability and desire to work with them.

Our challenge is to continue to use student expertise in achieving our ambition for every student in Scotland to receive the best possible learning experience.

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