I have been an advocate of student engagement for a few years now, my time as Student Representative and Student Governor at Doncaster College, being a QAA Student Reviewer and my time on The Student Engagement Partnership Steering Group has meant I've been lucky enough to attend many informative and interesting events, with some fascinating people. As a student at these events I have often been asked many questions around the barriers to student engagement and I have clear views regarding its importance. At one event, after a discussion around student apathy towards engagement in quality assurance, an academic replied "you wouldn't understand". We had been discussing how difficult it can sometimes be to get students to attend meetings; they are very busy, they often have many other commitments outside of student life, particularly in the Higher Education in Further Education Colleges and these meetings often have very little about them to appeal to the average student. My answer revolved around the need to ensure that information about the meetings and the meetings themselves were accessible, the importance of discussing the various benefits of student engagement and partnership with both staff and students and the need for a positive environment which encourages the development of an inclusive culture of partnership. I've got to admit the "you wouldn't understand" comment caught me a little by surprise, I was a highly engaged student in addition to many other commitments, however I did have to admit that no, I did not have any experience from the academics point of view. Now that I lecture in Higher Education, full-time, in a Further Education College, in addition to being a PhD student, I thought it might be interesting to revisit some of the questions I have been asked in the past to see if my understanding has evolved with the addition of another perspective.
Student apathy can of course be a definite barrier to student engagement, the defunct student stereotype of partying and drinking the way through a degree has been replaced, for the majority in higher education, by the knowledge that there are major expectations attached to student life, especially with the increasing emphasis placed on the development of transferable skills to aid future employability. Students often believe they have better things to do than engage in quality assurance or become involved in other student engagement opportunities. My views on the many benefits of active student engagement and partnership have not changed; the transferable skills and clear confidence and knowledge enhancing opportunities are, in my view, not only important but vital to the student experience. My time as a lecturer has only added to this belief. As a lecturer we are expected to ensure that employability is built into each module and I encourage an understanding of the value of volunteering and work experience at every given opportunity, if we do this within the course it makes sense to encourage this within the institution too. In many ways, with the busy student lifestyle, encouragement of student engagement can be far easier than finding time to volunteer outside the student community and contains many of the same benefits for students. Don't lynch me here, I'm aware it does not necessarily give exact workplace experience or increase the student's network; however in reality this is not always the case in many volunteering opportunities either. I am also keen not to reduce engagement to just an additional employability scheme, it is far more than that, it is about knowledge acquisition, it is about personal reflection and growth and it provides numerous benefits to the student themselves, the student body as a whole and the institution. If this is explained effectively to the students and they are still apathetic then maybe they are simply too busy and they will consider the opportunity to engage when they can, after all you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.
One of the other questions I'm often asked is "how are we supposed to make the meetings more accessible?" I can see how difficult this can be, if you have been doing something the same way for a long time, it works but it is not necessarily 'student friendly' then do you change the whole meeting set-up in order to accommodate this new entity? There are a few answers to this in my opinion. In some respects you do not need to change the meeting to accommodate the student; you just need to ensure a level playing field for them. Nobody wants to go into a meeting and not know what or who to expect to be facing; ensure the student understands the environment, the unspoken as well as the spoken rules and can fully integrate into the group, a big part of this is ensuring all the staff and other members 'buy in' to the student presence too. Formal meetings can be intimidating but are also a good learning experience. The other way to look at this is to ask whether the meetings really do work as they are. If there is the potential for students to feel intimidated and unable to speak then surely there is the potential for other staff and members to feel that way too; just because the meetings or committees adhere to their terms of reference or result in actions does not mean they are effective. Again I'm not sure my opinion has changed in this regard now I have the additional perspective of being a lecturer. Where the meeting style works and a supportive environment and inclusive culture is developed effectively I think it is a useful learning tool for students and introduces the additional, much needed, student perspective. In other instances a more organic structure, which can often be more comfortable for students, is often more comfortable and effective for the institutional staff too. Making meetings more accessible should not be simply a case of how do we make students more comfortable, it should be a case of seriously questioning what works and does not work for everyone involved; we should not be alienating one to please the other, we should be considering what an inclusive workplace culture looks like.
The final question I want to tackle is "how are we supposed to fit it all in with everything else we have to do?" This is the area where I feel I have learnt the most over the last year; a higher education institution is a very dynamic, inspiring and often demanding place to work. The student does not see the scaffolding that holds their student experience in place so perhaps any naivety I may have had with regards to this is a testament to the wonderful job my tutors and the people around me did of ensuring my experience was not in any way hindered by the targets and expectations placed on them from elsewhere. Although my understanding of the expectations placed on staff may have changed through experience, I think my answer still remains the same: student engagement is not about finding additional time; it's about involving students in what you are already doing. Effective student engagement and partnership may result in additional enhancement opportunities; I have seen some fantastic student-led or student engagement projects, however many of these involve extra time on the part of the students more than the staff. In fact effective student engagement and partnership should save time as it is about empowering students to take an active role in their learning experience, to be a part of developing new initiatives or to be part of a problem solving exercise. It is also important to state that not everything a student learns within higher education is learnt in the classroom, I learnt as much from the people, culture, environment and available opportunities as I did from the lessons and research. We engage with students on a daily basis, often it is not something you need to find time to do; it is something we already do and just needs to be recognised as such.
I do not profess to be an expert, I can of course only comment on my own experience and maybe some of you will be reading this still thinking "you wouldn't understand". Every institution is different, every practitioner is different, every student is different and student engagement is intrinsically contextual, however the underlying motivation is the same. As a student I advocated student engagement and partnership because I wanted to do my best and to enhance my student experience. As a lecturer and as an institution we advocate student engagement and partnership because we want the best for our students and we want to enhance their student experience.
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