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What on earth is student representation for?

Isn't student representation just a waste of time and energy? Sometimes it really is, and Jim Dickinson has thoughts on making it less so.
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Let’s imagine that a deaf student has been enrolled for the best part of six weeks, but still doesn’t have the specialist support in place that she needs (this shouldn’t be too difficult to imagine).

You know how this goes. She’s getting nowhere raising it with her department or school, and the central service keeps apologising. Eventually, she attends a “town hall meeting” with university senior managers and raises the issue. Everyone agrees that the situation is unacceptable, and that something will be done.

Some enquiries are made on behalf of the VC, and it is discovered that the student is not the only one. A working group on disability adjustments and support is hastily formed. The students’ union is invited. At the first meeting, the chair of the group asks the SU Welfare Officer if there are more cases that she knows about. The officer points out that she is neither clairvoyant nor the font of all knowledge about her members’ disabilities. It is agreed that it would be helpful to have a student on the group that is actually disabled. The officer is asked to source said student.

At the next meeting, the deaf student attends. Everyone agrees that it is slightly embarrassing that not only is the student missing the signer she needs in seminars, but also that no-one had thought to book one for the meeting. The student is asked to sit on one side of the room and everyone else on the other, so that she can lip read. People are surprised that she seemed OK with this in the meeting but seethed about it on Twitter later.

The chair of the group asks the deaf student if there are any more students facing these problems and if she has suggestions for fixing the problem. The student points out that she is not clairvoyant, not the font of all knowledge about students’ disabilities, and nor is she a disability policy specialist. She does raise the attitude she has faced from some academics, which ranges from naivety to hostility. The group agrees that the problem of academics’ awareness of these issues is a wider one and that the focus of the meeting should be on specialist support.

An action plan is formed. Some of the goals are long term and require wider change in the university. The group eventually disbands. Rinse, repeat in two years time.

A rep’s tale

Every student officer I’ve ever met has a version of this tale. In fact, every student representative I’ve ever met has one too. One of the most frustrating things about the “students aren’t customers, they’re partners” mantra is that so often, those things that are unacceptable – and should just be fixed – get buried in structures designed to deliberate rather than address.

The analogy runs like this. Of course those enrolling in a fitness regime at their local gym are partners in their own programme. Without their commitment, attendance and wider health regime, the promise of the programme won’t come true. They don’t pay to automatically “get fit” – they are in a fitness partnership.

But some items shouldn’t need their commitment, their effort, or their engagement. If the equipment doesn’t work, or the instructor is a racist, or an idiot, or doesn’t know what they’re doing, that should just be fixed. Similarly, a student needs to engage in independent study, and turn up to lectures and contribute in classes. But if the toilet paper runs out in their teaching block, it’s not their job to pop up the shop and buy a roll. If the lights go out, we shouldn’t expect students to pop a penny in the meter because we view them as a partner.

What even is a student?

The failure to conceptualise students in multiple ways – and to use the appropriate theory of change to address their concerns – has dogged student representation since it was invented. Student reps at course level are often told their job is to “raise any issues that student might have”. But at student-staff liaison committees, the response to issues raised by students from the academics dumped with attending the meeting is often that “that is an issue that doers need to be raised – but not with us”. After all, they are not in control of the Library. Or Estates. Or IT services. Or the registry. Or, indeed, it seems, most of the student experience.

These “low level” concerns – elements of the service being provided to students in exchange for their fee – are everywhere. For some, they are minor niggles. For others – often the most disadvantaged – their cumulative impact can have disastrous consequences. But the Competition and Markets Authority doesn’t even recognise most of these items as something that should be part of the “contract”. Sometimes silo-ed departments across universities will run a satisfaction survey with students, or will meet a student officer about a project. But in a mass HE age, our systems for capturing and handling the things that can go wrong for a student that shouldn’t require their effort are woeful or non existent. And it’s not the “student voice” that will fix it.

Albert O. Hirschman has a lot to answer for. His classic and much quoted work from the 70s work hinges on a conceptual ultimatum that confronts users in the face of deteriorating quality of goods: either exit (and choice) or voice. Here in higher education, the assumption has always been that “consumers” have a much more limited ability to “exit” than, say, poor service in their local supermarket. So we defaulted to voice, and representative systems to fix problems. And you’ll never guess what happened next.

So what is student representation for?

If student representation isn’t for fixing problems, what is it for? Perhaps it’s a type of mass mind mind reading. Sometimes, often in senior committees where chairs should know better, student officers are asked “what students think” about a particular issue that often wasn’t explicitly on the agenda. The assumption here – that as if by magic, the organisation (and its associated modest funding) or the officer will somehow “know” is for the birds. And even where the officer does give an answer, there’s often a survey or a dataset or an academic that knows better. Back when student populations were homogenous, and campuses were small, maybe the student in the room did know the answer. But they are unlikely to know now.

Student representation tends to go through phases. In the 70s, its real purpose was to stem the tide of demonstrations launched by students not involved in student disciplinary panels. In the 80s it started to be about courses. The 90s took on a developmental focus for the representatives involved, the 00s focused on partnership and problem solving, and the 10s have come to represent a decade of dabbling in diversity. Like tree rings, they all still matter. But what of the decade to come, with the all the data on outcomes and opinions that we now hold?

Some would argue – especially in other contexts – that the best way to empower users is not with reps but with rights. But many of us remember the hesitancy that greeted any student officer suggestion to be a “bit more specific” on university commitments in student charters back at the start of the decade – and for those in Wales, they probably only have to think back a few weeks. If the assessment and feedback policy says that marks have to be back in three weeks, why are we so afraid of pulling that out and telling students’ it’s their right? Could it be that its presence in the policy is merely a guideline? An aspiration? A hope? Why are we so keen on setting standards of academic work but less keen on setting and monitoring the standards of facilities and support that surround its production?

Righting the wrongs

And even if you know what you’re entitled to, there’s then the process of enforcing one’s rights. Don’t underestimate how hard it is for David to consider even raising an issue with Goliath – especially in settings where relationships matter or where the failure is significant. If nothing else, Goliath is marking the work. Why rock the boat? And why do we persist with a situation where those in smaller providers – often the most at risk and disadvantaged – have no access at all to independent advocacy, as those in large universities do through their SU?

Once we fix all of that, it might free up student representatives to be creative, challenging and radical – to find new ways to teach, or support, or provide in the student interest. We will have to help them. Student officers will spend the summer learning all about the university, asking questions about its operations and politics to influence it. But perhaps those involved in leading universities need to ask some searching questions too. What do mean when we say “student”? What do we think the student in the room is there to do? Who thinks it’s their responsibility to engage with students? Is the student in the room a proxy for proper work/understanding? Why is all of our development of representatives focused on them learning about how the institution works? Why are student asks so modest and conservative? And when they’re creative or radical or just interesting – why is our default instinct to shut them down?

Time to reinvent student representation

The key is for SUs to ask themselves some hard questions – and work in partnership with universities to address them – to reinvent student representation again for a new decade. First, we need a student rights revolution. This means absolute clarity on the rights, entitlements and minimums that students should experience. It means methods that work at scale to ensure that policies and promises are followed through, and ways of capturing both at scale and personally things that need to be fixed. And it means guaranteeing that all students – at any size of provider – can get hold of independent support when complaining that rights are not being met.

Next, we must wean ourselves off the idea that elected student leaders are mere mass message carriers, or replaceable by surveys or data. It’s not so long ago that draft 1 of the Quality Code only afforded students the agency to complete a feedback survey – but as SUs around the country pointed out, if we’re serious about students being partners we should start by recognising that active participation matters – and that the questions that get asked in a survey (and those that aren’t) are usually more important than the answers that come back.

If we’re to empower the student actors we involve, we have to do all sorts of things. We have to give them the data. All of the data. We have to let them influence the data that’s collected, the questions that are asked, the capacity to interpret it and to even let them collect some of their own. We have to take deliberate steps to put them “on the level” with people they are interacting with, let them in on the policy problems, measure legitimacy in ways other than “they were elected” and tell them what we’ve done with their input. Those beleaguered Access and Participation managers that have sent their A&P plan for SU President sign off and a supportive quote with a few days to go – you must know that’s not good enough. And when we’re involving “ordinary” students – especially in matters concerning harassment, or discrimination – we really do have to stop assuming that they can contribute their time and emotional labour for free, when everyone else around the table is paid.

We should reset, relentlessly, what we think of as a “normal” student. The compound impact of minor failure on “abnormality” is huge. Stop and think for a minute about the commuter student and the multiple ways in which an unhelpful “norm” can manifest across university structures, services and campuses. Students’ unions are desperate to find ways to talk to universities about the real lives of students, but we’ll need student centred structures that don’t require the “commuter student rep” to traipse around the bureaucracy with all the effectiveness of a door-to-door double glazing salesman.

A few weeks back someone on Twitter said that students don’t go to university to be satisfied – you go to be “profoundly challenged, unsettled, pushed and skilled in the hope that you might think differently and better when you graduate”. For the record, students don’t express dissatisfaction on the basis that they were educationally challenged, unsettled, pushed and skilled in the hope that they might think differently. It’s that stuff that causes their satisfaction.

And anyway, we should want our students to feel good. I see too many “rite of passage” excuses for students being treated poorly, and I see too much rejection of the idea that we should want students to “feel” happy, or “enjoy” university, or be “satisfied”. Why on earth not? Isn’t feeling safe, happy, comfortable and cared for a great precursor to learning? Why do so many of us seemingly want learning to be a chore? And what is more satisfying than nailing a piece of work you’ve been supported to produce?

3 responses to “What on earth is student representation for?

  1. Quite interestingly written. I was at a training event recently where students were described as partners, co creators, customers and many more. The key point was – Students are Students. Probably we are missing this element. I tried to enquire with the presenter from NUS as to what do students expect through their participation and in fact, they are not aware too? I checked on the role of unions that contributed to significant changes rather than minor academic and oeprationall adjustments ? I am still unsure. The discussions then moved on to the curriculum diet where one of my colleaues rightly pointed that ‘ if he asks his son to choose his diet, he would just choose chicken and chips. It is his reponsibilty as a teacher to plan a healthy diet. i think we are some way moving away from the fundamentals of teacher student relations and ethics that made us to remember a few of the good teachers who shaped our today.

  2. An interesting read. What this highlights for me is the gulf between appropriate and often aspirational policies and what happens in practice. This is why we need robust internal and external quality assurance processes to be assured that these policies are practice. The dumbing down of QA requirements has not helped. Do we need a charter on students’ rights? Maybe – we have baseline regulatory requirements, but they are not easily digestible for staff so not sure how a student rep on a 1-2 year contract should be expected to get to grips with them in matter of weeks. Some real challenges here and we appear to be moving further away from solving them.

  3. YES! Exactly. How can anyone be expected to give the view of ‘students’. When you have a student population of 30,000 students who come from all different parts of the world, study all different subjects and have all different lives, how is it possible? If you have the time, resources and expertise available to gather up all the information, and analyse it, on everything the HEI wants to know about (and asks about then and there in a meeting), what pointless information will come out of it once it’s been interpreted to make one point about ‘what students think’. Students can have a hundred opposing and conflicting needs and wants. I’d like to see us thinking more about empowering student organisers, rather than representatives, who can support HEI’s to connect with and involve students in decision making.
    Also – how many reps, in how many meetings, with how many surveys does it take to convince the university they have a problem with assessment & feedback, or timetable clashes, or mental health? Do we really need to find that out for the 50th year running? I want to see students involved in the problem solving and testing out solutions, not just telling the university AGAIN that it’s a problem.

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