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BLOG: No better time to engage students in the big questions

14 April 2021

While the pandemic has undoubtedly been a traumatic time for staff and students, there are opportunities for the student voice now that fundamental questions are being asked about where we go next. As Stef Black and Simon Varwell from sparqs argue, now is the time to ensure students are co-creating the answers.

A former college students’ association president in Scotland tells a good story about how one of the best things to happen during his term of office many years ago was the local bus company scrapping their student discount. Not that the president supported the removal, of course. He and fellow reps were appalled and angry, but the decision gave their sometimes aimless and reactive students’ association an urgent new purpose to mobilise around. By energising their student population and joining forces with other students’ associations in the city, their campaign won a reversal of the decision. Students at last saw the value of their students’ association, and the president too realised the power and importance of the student voice. He went on to hold national office in the student movement and is now a respected students’ association chief executive.

Think of similar campaigns you’ve seen. Have you ever been asked to sign a petition to save something that wasn’t actually under threat, or write a letter to abolish something that didn’t exist? People only want to change something when there’s a reason, and it often takes a threat of closure to help us realise how much we value something.

There are parallels with education at this current time. Nobody would have wished this pandemic on the world, and the disruption to education and wider society has been horrific and will be felt for years. What the heroic and creative responses from staff and students have shown, however, is that our sector is in good hands when partnership is in place, and that students can contribute to bold decision-making that looks afresh at the challenges in front of us. Colleagues in sparqs’ equivalent agency in Irish higher education, NStEP, have reported that the early weeks of the pandemic in Ireland “presented a significant threat to student engagement with learning, student engagement with institutional life, and indeed, student engagement in institutional decision-making” but the requirement for urgent dialogue “ultimately led to a chance to shift the dynamic of the existing power balance – not necessarily to the perceived detriment of any party”, and “a large proportion of the incoming student population energised to voice their opinion”.

We have found similar evidence in our work in sparqs. We’ve not only had high attendance at our network events (which could be partly attributed to digital platforms removing the inconvenience and cost of travel) but high engagement too with vigorous discussions and plenty sharing of practice about the changed approaches to engagement and representation. This is something that many across the sector are celebrating: institutions and students’ associations tell us that not only are more students engaging fully in giving evidence in internal review and self-evaluation meetings, but a wider, more diverse range of students are relishing the opportunity to comment on their learning experience. We’ve presented on that point at a recent European conference, and our own research into the impact of the virus on particular student groups also found a real desire from many students to explain both the good and bad things that happened in their studies.

It’s also been true at the national level, where sector decision-makers have begun asking big questions about the future of learning. The pandemic is clearly a driver of such processes, such as the Independent Commission on the College of the Future and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC)’s Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability. While the pandemic has presented new and unparalleled challenges, SFC rightly point out that it “has accelerated trends and accentuated issues that were already in play before the crisis”. The pandemic has, in many ways, removed both the luxury but perhaps also the hinderance of time: we’ve had to quickly and resourcefully adjust, asking the challenging questions and making the big decisions that bring about a real momentum of change in our sector. An interesting observation from a sector colleague was how the pandemic has forced us (for the better) to do things in a way that was always possible, saying “we’ve always had the tech, but just never thought to use it.”

It’s too easy to say that students aren’t interested in national policy issues, because when such big questions affect them, students show they have strong views and are not shy about expressing them. For instance, the Independent Commission’s calls in its Scotland report for increased tertiary integration, equalised maintenance support across further and higher education or digital transformation not only align with some of the issues students and students’ associations have been campaigning on in recent years, but present existential questions about the nature of their learning experiences and institutions as a whole that students will not want to see answered without their input.

Students just need to be asked in the right way, supported to engage in an evidence-led and collective manner, and treated as meaningful partners and not merely responders to a process that has been pre-designed elsewhere. Our national events for student officers have been greatly enriched recently by contributions from the Independent Commission, the SFC and others about these big issues, which are now firmly on the agendas of students’ associations.

These questions about the future of education are relevant and urgent: what kind of quality processes are needed? How do we want colleges and universities to operate? What should learning look like, especially in this new digital environment? How do we prepare students for the turbulent world which they will very soon shape and lead? It’s our privilege in sparqs to support and facilitate the student voice to feature strongly in these important debates, and our experience suggests it’s a rewarding, impactful and essential part of preparing our sector for the future.

Stef Black and Simon Varwell are Senior Development Consultants at Student Partnerships in Quality Scotland (sparqs), Scotland’s national development agency for student engagement.