They care quite a bit about education, carry the burdens and ambitions of other students on their shoulders, and tend to really want to support the academics and professional services staff they work with.
So as part of our Wonkhe SUs work I’ve been particularly thrilled this term to spend quite a bit of time with quite a few of them at a number of SU course rep conferences, and I have some reflections to share.
The first thing that has struck me is how engaged they all are with the messaging from both universities and government – partly because of the way it jars with the reality they are experiencing.
- They have real friends who have been sold “blended” but have terrible wifi, chaotic home lives and patchy wifi.
- They know about Michelle Donelan’s “quality and quantity” mantra, but also know it’s not happening for them – and they know that nobody is really monitoring it, despite what DfE keeps saying about OfS’ role to the press.
- They’re aware they’re supposed to do “more than their course” to make them into rounded graduates – but they also know that Zoom quizzes aren’t going to bag them a dream job in a vicious recession, even if they write them.
We might not see it very often, but the emotional labour they deploy in defence of higher education is remarkable. I’ve had plenty of them explain to me why a fee refund wouldn’t benefit a home undergraduate, and plenty more explain that mass compensation would be bad for their education and their staff if it came from the university’s budget. Yet for all that patient responsibility they show, it doesn’t change the fact that they’ve been lightning rods for a toxic mix of discontent and deteriorating mental health – and they don’t feel that their ideas, feedback or creativity can fix it.
A consistent theme everywhere I’ve been has been the amount of support they feel students are getting from academics. It’s paradoxical – these being reps, they know that their tutors are working harder than ever, but they also feel that students need more support and more engagement from staff.
On interrogation, this appears to be a version of the vertical/horizontal support issue I was talking about earlier in the year with mental health. The vertical is the stuff “provided” by the provider – the contact time, the office hours and so on. The horizontal is the peer to peer social learning environment that allowed them to thrive. Both combine to create learning.
But when the horizontal is stilted or missing, they naturally feel they need more vertical – and in many cases they can’t get it, and deeply resent the implication they’re selfish for wanting it.
Almost everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been hit with a question about practical loss. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked about trips or labs or practical modules that were postponed, then amended, then scrapped – and while they know they’ll still pass, they also know the skills they’re supposed to sell to employers are missing. How can this be allowed to happen, they all ask. I have no answer.
At every event, there have been comparison questions. They’re more aware than ever that what they’re experiencing is different from others in their institution, and from others in their subject in other providers. Anything that happens that is different to their expectations is put down to the pandemic – the ultimate catch all for all the chaos – but they ask me how it is that the same pandemic imposing the same restrictions is impacting in such different ways. Again, I have no answer.
There’s an anger – at the government for sure, but at the idea that they were somehow sold a lie, and told it would all be different but fine. Back in January, I answered that question by suggesting that they must have been warned back in August and given their permission to change their experience because OfS said that that had to happen, and I got my head bit off. I didn’t make that mistake again.
There’s an endless list of gripes. VLE’s that don’t function. E-books that have restricted licenses. Online teaching where the tech doesn’t work. Assessment is chaotic and feedback is late. They don’t know what quality is supposed to look like when everyone looks and sounds exhausted. One said to me he felt like he was in one big experiment, a pedagogical pilot that nobody would want to learn from because surely nobody would commission a second series of “this”.
Some of them have tried to raise their concerns, but say nothing has been done. Some have been warned not to cause too much trouble, or been told to complain to the government instead. Others have outright argued with me – how could we complain about the people that will mark us? Others put it like this – how do we complain when it will seem like we are attacking them? I have no answer.
Perhaps the biggest thing that comes across is a sense that decision makers at every level are out of touch with what students feel and want. I think some of that is about the realities of what’s been possible in a pandemic, some of it’s about the isolation of lockdown, and some of it is about the sense that whoever they interact with, what they’re experiencing is definitely someone else’s department. Or fault. Or responsibility.
But it’s also about a profound feeling of being forgotten about – and only remembered when the rent is due, or when the country’s culture is going to hell in a handcart, or when the infection rates are climbing, or when the police are coming with a fixed penalty notice pad in hand.
The good news? There’s about 75,000 course reps around the UK and on the evidence of my interactions with them, they mostly still want to be assertive partners in their education. There’s energy left, and they’ll use it positively – as long as we don’t pretend they’ve “had everything they’ve paid for”, and we help them use it to set right some of the things they’ve lost this year.