Lots of universities talk about working in partnership with their SU, or their students, or both.
But when it comes to the creation of strategy, sometimes students are treated like any other stakeholder group – a student on a committee, a survey or a box full of feedback postcards are what the “partnership” really consists of.
So what would happen if we treated students as active participants in the creation of strategy, rather than a mere latent user of university strategic output? The traditional idea – that students will not being invested in the development of a university long term, is dated – especially now that Generation Z students are prominent on campus. In my views, co-creation is important and can have huge benefits for institutions.
When I started my role as Nottingham Trent Students’ Union President in July 2018, I was amazed to see that across the higher education sector there was little to no evidence of co-creation between students and staff existing. After studying marketing and understanding the benefits of value co-creation, it is something that I wanted to work on and implement at a high level. So after reading a post on Wonkhe about university and union strategies being two beating hearts, I was inspired, and we decided to prolong the SUs current strategy to launch at a similar time to the University’s in 2020.
Students as co-creators
A lot of people would think that students do not care about the big corporate strategies of a university – they are wrong. Students are invested in their choice of university, and want to have a say in how and what their university focuses in whilst they are studying there. The question then arises about how a student becomes involved with the process. The driver of this must come from the SU, and this can only occur if there is a positive collaborative relationship created between SU and university.
Unions have a large reach and can engage a large proportion of students in the process itself, typically engaging different groups of students than universities. The groups are often already in existence so why try and create more? It is about time that unions and institutions stop duplicating resources and working together on things like this.
Firstly, the university can use student ideas as a health check. Hearing what students think means that there is the chance to see how the current strategic plan is going, listening to those that are accessing the current position. Strategy is pointless unless it impacts people, and I would put money on there being surprised faces when students talk about their experiences.
Co-creating with students and staff means that the strategic plan that is created is something both groups are going to be able to identify with. This causes a large amount of benefits, namely an increase in a partnership approach across the institution, and making strategic change easier. For SU sabbatical officers reading this, it also makes your life 100x easier when it comes to making change at your institution.
It also allows for professional services staff members to engage with students. When do they really ever get to do this? It is interesting that such a large group of staff members never to get to converse with the largest group that they influence.
Benefits are one thing, but I know that doing engagement is another. Firstly, and most importantly, there must be a strong union – institution relationship, characterised by trust. That is the biggest hurdle that most will face, thankfully not at Nottingham Trent.
What NTU asked of us was to produce a student voice report which will shape the final strategy, but how we collected the data for this was completely up to us. What we kicked off with was the development of our own themes – and then we spoke to students in their first year all the way through to PhD, this was done through Freshers’ Fair, the usual feedback cards and surveys, and also interviews. It is important to talk to all types students, and to make sure they have a voice in this – in total we engaged around 4,000 students. Then we started to think about how we might provide a platform for ideas and debate to emerge amongst the students and staff of the university.
What was created was something that can be replicated easily. Our “Collaborative Strategy Workshop” was just as jazzy as it sounds. This event had 100 students and 50 staff members in the union together, discussing and considering ideas about the future. It allowed for the creation of ideas about what the focus should be, and the most important element was that this was together, in a partnership.
Once the ideas were all brought together, the final paper for the university was created and then distillation sessions were created. I took 16 students along to our university leadership team to talk about the student voice report, about how these ideas can influence the university strategic themes. These sessions allowed for senior leadership mindsets to be changed, and the discussion was much more student (and student union) focussed.
Real partnership working
This won’t work everywhere. If your senior team thinks that strategy development is something done in solitary confinement by the top people, and “presented” to a willing university community, you’re doing it wrong.
But if you’re sold on facilitating the university community driving strategy, I can’t recommend this process enough. For us students have had a real say in the future of the university, it has improved the relationship between union and university, and has given students a greater footprint on campus. It will also increase trust in the institution by the students and staff, because they are invested in what the university is doing and how it is run. Students unions and universities don’t always have to be at loggerheads – and a process like this provides the perfect opportunity to change things.