Student engagement: 20 points for student unions and academics to note (UK)

As it’s freshers week, we sum up what our live chat panelists had to say about how student unions can work with the rest of the institution to boost engagement and experience by  Eliza Anyangwe

Kate Bowles, senior lecturer, University of Wollongong, Australia
Think carefully about the questions used in student ratings: Rating a lecturer on qualities such as ‘inspiring’ is flawed because it’s such a vague term. Students find different aspects of lecturing and lecturers inspiring, and as a lecturer, I wouldn’t be able to apply the same measures – when I’m designing either learning outcomes or grading rubrics that will have to pass some kind of scrutiny, I don’t get to say: “This grade is for an essay I find inspiring”.

Academics must accept that the employability agenda is a part of HE: Academics within research-driven communities need to respect the fact that we have jobs, and that it’s not a sign of the decline of scholarly civilisation if students also want jobs. This means that introducing issues of professionalisation, skills and employability to the way we talk about Jane Austen isn’t the beginning of the end. We can still broadly support e.g. the liberal arts, but we do need to admit that the debt acquired by university graduates is significant, and places some responsibility on us to make good our claim to enhance student employability.

Academics are not their institutions: I’m not sure it’s always clear (enough) to students that academics don’t always strongly align themselves with their institutions. Many academics do feel responsible for the quality of the student experience, while feeling neither part of the union nor the institution. It’s a complicated position. The quality of the collaboration between academics and students (who do spend quite a bit of time together) is sometimes underestimated, perhaps because it only gets attention when it’s gone wrong?

Gerard Tully, president, Cambridge University Student Union
The National Student Survey (NSS) is a blunt instrument and will probably be negative for most student unions (SUs): Like everything on the NSS, the indicators aren’t accurate. For example, most students will not need representational or welfare support during their degrees (which is a good thing) and so will have had no contact with the SU. This might equate to a poor response rate to this question though no issue exists. The NSS will also disproportionately benefit ‘full-service’ unions. Somewhere like Warwick or Sheffield, with huge SUs on campus that are the hub of social life, community interaction, political activity will come off much better than, say, Cambridge, where the student body is more disparate and diverse and the SU fills a very different niche. The question then is what will the fall-out be and will it be an important factor in University-SU funding arrangements?

Have realistic engagement expectations: Expecting even half of your student body to be engaged all the time is unrealistic. Our biggest campaigns (for example, saving bursaries for undergraduate students and taking a stand over freedom to protest) have probably engaged about 20% of the student population. That’s about the same as SU elections – which I believe is higher than the national average, which is only about 13%.

Remember that up to a third, or even more, of students will be postgraduates: A PhD finalist will have very different priorities to an 18-year old fresher, despite the fact they might face equally serious challenges in their education. I would dispute that any campaign can unite all people and still be meaningful or effective. SUs need to campaign smarter, not bigger, in my view.

Derfel Owen, student engagement and participation development manager, University of Exeter
Student engagement challenges student unions’ attitudes toward the institution: A sector where students are treated as serious members of the academic community challenges the fall-back position of most SUs. They will have to drop the state of perma-distrust, verging on hostility, with the university as it undermines the ability of universities to take the student engagement forward. It would also require SUs to take conversations to the wider student community, so that student engagement does not rest, purely, on the shoulders of senior managers and SU sabbatical officers.

Use social media to facilitate student engagement: The challenge is making sure that universities, that are traditional very cautious and slow to move, keep up with the speed at which social networking and communications is evolving. It’s also important for universities and SUs to integrate social media into their online offering. Too often we try to emulate existing platforms, rather than just use what exists already. Students like using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, so we should meet them there, not try to force them to come to our VLE (virtual learning environment) party.
Case study: Exeter Change Agents initiative has been wildly popular and has engaged students directly in identifying opportunities for change and delivering creative solutions.

Jenny Hazan, communications manager, BAM Agency, a student marketing agency
Clarity, communication and collaboration are key: It’s important to remember that not all students are necessarily going to be active participants, so ensuring that they hear about what is going on and how their SU can represent them is key. In some institutions there is an age-old dispute between the role of the university and that of the union – these relationships need to be patched. Without these key relationships, there are bound to be difficulties for both sides in providing the best experience possible.

Don’t neglect the international student experience: It’s a co-ordinated effort between the university and the SU to ensure that international students do not feel excluded or only spend time with other international students. Universities must find a balance between laying on events for the international community and also finding ways to help them integrate with the wider student body. Read the suggestions made by the HE live chat panel on overseas student experience.

Resource: The 1994 Group of universities produced an interesting report on student experience. While they concluded that there was no single defining notion of what a good student experience was, they identified significant contributing factors. One of which was “a strong relationship between students and staff”. There is so much information and knowledge that unions and universities would benefit from sharing with each other.

Dan Derricott, board member, The Quality Assurance Agency
Unions must get better at shouting about their successes: From experience I know that though unions are doing some great work, working with the university to win for students, if they aren’t supported by an engaging communications function that helps to ‘close the feedback loop’ then students sometimes don’t see those wins.

Better communications won’t solve all student experience problems but it’s certainly one of the jigsaw pieces that needs to be in place. Unions are struggling to keep pace with the changes: Institutions have had to shift their thinking and practice to respond to the student engagement agenda, but lets not pretend students’ unions haven’t had to as well. I still think it’s something we’re struggling with in unions and our internal politics makes it difficult to divert any existing resource into this area (away from sports teams for instance) so we need institutions to help. Similarly, I wonder how much the profile and expertise of SU staff is changing to respond to the developing nature of the union’s business and priorities.

Alan Roberts, policy officer, National Union of Students
SUs need to be transparent about the complexity of their role: As democratic membership organisations, SUs have the job of both listening to their members and representing them through elected leaders. This is no mean feat if you consider the scale of work that a university undertakes, across multiple departments, for which student engagement is needed and in which the SU will have to voice one coherent view. Being transparent about how decisions, consulting members where possible, is a big task but lies at the heart of the lobbying responsibility of the SU.

Establish good organisational practices and rituals: We all have a role in demonstrating the value of student engagement, as well as making that engagement as easy and as natural as possible. This can’t be done with the imposition of rules and regulations, but rather through a vision of the institution as a community that’s not afraid to disagree with itself sometimes, and strives to make the experience excellent and rewarding for students and academics. Think of it as Investors in People meets Investors in Volunteers.

Emily-Ann Nash, student experience development advisor, University of Brighton
Students are members of a learning community and the SU is best placed to communicate that message: Partnership with students will enable students to become co-producers and partners in the academic community. The SU as the voice of students, and independent to their institutions, is best placed to manage and articulate these messages to ensure they are real and not just a tick boxing exercise. Every student union should look into starting a student led award scheme: These schemes encourage best practice across the university, they are also a positive way of engaging with students and celebrating institutions. Brighton University’s scheme is working with this year’s and last year’s nominees for staff development to influence, even lead our university learning and teaching strategy – its true partnership from start to finish.

Jo Caulfield, president, Bangor Students’ Union
Working with academics is crucial if SUs are to have any impact: Without a route in to the institution, there’s a danger that student unions end up on the sidelines shouting about what should happen, and how things could be improved, but without being able to make any real impact. Developing relationships with academics is a way to bring about change, especially if you work with the willing in the first instance and then publicise the benefits to those who are more cynical.

Emma Brown, representation and community manager, University of West England Students’ Union
Case study: We ran Student Led Teaching Awards at UWE for the first time this year. The response we got from both students and staff was really positive. Student were able to clearly articulate why they wanted to nominate staff, recognising key enhancements to their student experience. Staff commented that it made them feel rewarded and humbled that students wanted to recognise their work.

Tom Corfield, founder, free range university (fruni)
Resource: SUs could benefit from internal online tools in the style of to enable students to have a ‘voice’ on issues they are passionate about.

Source: Guardian Professional