Last week I talked about the need for engagement with students in decision-making to be authentic, with the university putting emphasis on partnership rather than consultation. I also pointed to the need to support that level of engagement.
The first step in this engagement is to provide opportunity for students to participate in decision making processes from early in their university career. A good way to encourage this is to provide for student representation to begin at course, year or subject level, and progress through to faculty and university committees and senior governance roles. The advantage of this approach is that it provides opportunity for many students to participate in a capacity closely matched with their level of experience. It enables them to develop skills in representing fellow students. They gain experience in raising issues with university personnel and understanding how universities work. They can work out if they like representative roles. If they do, the next level might be to engage in a faculty board or discipline society or committee. From there, students may progress to increasingly more senior roles commensurate with expertise and appetite. However, some may be happy to continue from year to year working on representing their course, contributing their increasing experience and sharing it with new representatives.
To facilitate students taking on these roles support and training needs to be provided. At the course representative level training doesn’t need to be particularly elaborate. We have run a pilot project where the course representatives were provided with a two hour training session which explained the purpose of course representatives, helped students to identify what issues course representatives should engage with (and what issues they shouldn’t), provided some basic training in meeting protocols and communication skills, and provided them with a series of scenarios to discuss to check their understanding of their role. Students were also provided with details of where they could get help if they encountered a problem they didn’t know how to deal with or if the role presented challenges that they needed support with. They were provided with a handbook and contact details for a support officer they could talk to as needed. It was important also to get academic staff on board with the idea of course representatives and to see them as a valuable tool for them in enhancing their courses. I will develop this in a later blog.
We found that the course representatives provided some valuable insights that led to improvement. The course representative engagement also provided an opportunity to disseminate better understanding amongst students as to why some things are done in a particular way. These results were facilitated by the student being prepared for and supported in their role.
As student representatives take on more senior roles their training and support needs may increase but at the same time these more experienced representatives can play an important role in mentoring newer representatives. At the most senior levels, some institutions are already providing opportunity for student representatives to take part in more advanced training such as company director training and financial briefings. This level of investment in student representation is an important indicator that a university is taking its engagement with students in decision making seriously. It is also an investment that can pay dividends though building expertise within the student body that can be shared.