Douglas Blackstock recently retired as the CEO of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

So, it is the morning after. The first day after leaving full-time employment.

Now that the kids are alright, all having graduated and in gainful employment, it’s just myself, my wife, and the dog to worry about. Had I been retired in Scotland or Wales I could use the magic bus pass to travel free into town. Maybe I could relax in front of the TV and see if there is a bargain on Homes Under the Hammer – or would that not be the real me?

Or do I just get on with writing the reflective piece on student engagement that I promised QAA and Wonkhe colleagues? I can’t explain why I kept putting it off, given how my time in higher education has been dedicated to promoting student engagement anyway, anyhow, anywhere I can.

A life in student engagement

“Who are you?”, some readers might ask, and what qualifies you to write on student engagement? Well, back in 1984 when I was a boy (not really), I returned to HE after an incomplete first attempt, and have been variously: a Students’ Association President; an officer with NUS Scotland; General Manager of three Students’ Unions; and championed student engagement in quality assurance over 20 years at QAA.

One of my earliest tasks as a Students’ Association officer was recruiting course representatives, with training provided by NUS Scotland. As President, in 1986-87, we had an external quality assurance review by the Council for National Academic Awards. This is when we discovered the power of the Student Written Submission, and how quickly things get fixed when you share it in draft with the Principal.

As a sabbatical officer with NUS, I started to shift my balance from purely campaigning to seeing the value I could add, particularly by supporting the development of SU representatives in FE colleges.

When I moved to Greenwich, I secured funding from Enterprise in Higher Education (EHE) to study practice in the USA and established a funded ‘Student Leadership Programme’ to train faculty and course representatives. This was particularly valuable in the HEQC audit of the University. Maybe that audit coming prompted the University to fund us?

Students at the heart of the system

In the mid-90s there was a flourishing of projects, supported by both Conservative and Labour governments. EHE as mentioned, the National Student Learning Programme (NSLP) and Student Activities and Development in Action (STADIA). By the time I left Warwick, the SU team of student trainers were training 500 Staff-Student Liaison Committee members each year. Most of the hard work above was undertaken by others. I tried to facilitate, or at least not get in the way.

Joining QAA in 2002, one of the first discussions I was involved in was designing a new Audit method that would replace the much-loathed Academic Review. At that point, the Student Written Submission got back into external quality assurance in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. In Scotland, colleagues went further and brought students into (internal and external) Review teams as full and equal members. I confess I was initially sceptical, in case it became a substitute for broader engagement of students in external quality assurance. I was proven wrong.

Across the UK we launched support activity with NUS and the representative bodies. In Scotland this took the shape of sparqs and in the other nations, events called ‘Quality Takes Time’ were established, eventually becoming the annual events we know today as ‘Quality Matters’ and ‘Evolving Student Engagement’.

By 2006, the QAA Board had seen the benefits of the partnership in Scotland and in PSRB accreditation activities and wanted to see students on review teams across the UK. I was asked to step in to persuade a hesitant QAA staff and a doubtful sector. I recruited Derfel Owen (now acting Registrar at UCL) and we set about building the case, with a pilot of six students as observers on review teams and researching case studies (in England and Wales) of students on institutional internal reviews.

We launched findings of both at a large 2007 conference, called SMART – Student Members of Audit and Review Teams. The students won the audience over and resistance to both proposals melted away, although we had to concede that in the first instances, universities could opt not to have a student on their team.

Director level

With the help of Maureen McLaughlin, lately of Warwick and now at Northumbria, we set about recruiting and training hundreds of students to participate in these new processes and in the end only two universities opted out. The QAA Board also led by example and our student observer role was changed to a full Director.

Students took the responsibility of being a reviewer with the same level of commitment shown in preparing the written submission for their own institutions. QAA colleagues often commented about how well prepared they were. Many students’ unions regularly told us that they never had greater influence in their institution than in the run up to a QAA review.

We also initiated the cross-sector student engagement group in England and a similar group for Wales. These would eventually morph into the Student Engagement Programme and the Wales Initiative on Student Engagement (WISE). Sadly, these are no longer with us. Sparqs still operates and is cited internationally as an example of effective practice.

QAA progressed its own internal reforms as well as sector partnerships. In spring of 2011, the QAA Board endorsed a position statement that would put students at the centre of everything we do. The addition of an NUS nominee on the Board was accompanied by the transformation of a sounding Board into our Student Strategic Advisory Committee, and students being on every group developing the UK Quality Code and involved in Subject Benchmark Statements.

Other sector bodies have also progressed their own student engagement activity and involvement in governance and we have the fantastic RAISE network and even a Master’s Degree in Student Engagement at University of Winchester. In an article in AUA perspectives, Shah, Hartman and Hastings described the engagement of students in external reviews as “extraordinary”, going on to describe the inclusion of student engagement as one of a number of Quality Codes developed by QAA in collaboration with the sector.

In the code

When the original QAA Code of Practice was developed in the late 90s, a decision was made that there could be only 10 sections, and two proposed ones on student representation and international students were abandoned.

By the early part of the last decade, we had a chapter on student engagement in the UK Quality Code. By the end of the same decade there was a proposal to take student engagement back out. At the final meeting to determine the content of the code, it was heartening to hear the Committee of University Chairs lead the push back, describing student engagement as a defining feature of UK higher education.

Of course, the UK has not stood still and we no longer have a single system of external quality assurance, although the sector-agreed framework remains the UK Quality Code, developed with and by the sector working with QAA. While students are less involved in external oversight of all institutions in England, they remain a key part of the processes in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

I hope to be going mobile again soon in my role as the elected President of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), although catching the 5:15, with a change at Swindon, won’t feature as much as it did pre-pandemic. There is no doubt that practice in the UK has influenced the broader world, and it is now expected that students are involved in quality assurance across the 49 countries of the European Higher Education Area, and European Students’ Union officers join together with other key partners in the Bologna Process.

Engaging students in quality is challenging – there is no miracle cure. But there is no substitute for understanding the learning experiences of students directly, other than making them part of quality and regulatory decision-making. Data is an important and powerful tool, but spreadsheets can only tell part of the story.

It’s been an amazing journey and I hope the sector continues its commitment to put students, genuinely, at the heart of the system regardless of external developments.

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