Architects of their experience- what the report found and what it means for us – Student Academic Representative systems (SARs)

In last week’s blog, I briefly mentioned the recent report Flint, A., Goddard, H. and Russell, E. (2017) Architects of their experience: the role, value and impact of student representation systems in Higher Education in England, TSEP,…/. This week I want to share with you an overview of some of the key points made in that report and what it means for us here in Australia. While the tertiary education sector of each country has its own special unique character, it is important that we learn from the experience of others. The overall message of this research is that the engagement of student voice is of value to providers, to students and to higher education as a whole. It does however recognise the challenges in implementation of processes for authentic student engagement and offers suggestions from which are useful. The report was published by The Student Engagement Partnership (TSEP), a partnership of the National Union of Students, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the Higher Education Academy and the funding council HEFCE (about to become the Office for Students). This group champions and develops student engagement practice in the English higher education sector. The research was undertaken by a team led by Abbi Flint, an independent educational developer and researcher who is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy with specialist interest and experience in student engagement and partnership.

The research was born out of TSEP ‘s recognition of the importance of student representation in quality enhancement and learning and teaching and the absence of current analysis of English student representation systems. TSEP promotes the view that “the continued success of representation systems is rooted in collaboration between the provider and their student body”. The report analyses a limited qualitative research study exploring how higher education providers and their students’ associations perceive the role, value and impact of their student academic representation (SAR) systems.

What does Student Academic Representation (SAR) look like?
There is no universal model in England- both strategy and operation are diverse ‘… it is adaptable and flexible to different contexts and organisational cultures’. Important influences are the culture and ethos of the institution and students’ association, other organisational factors, individual perspectives and external drivers including institutional reputation and changing national policy. In short it is a system that exists in a complex landscape with many demands impinging on how it operates. Many of those demands resonate with experience here in Australia.

SAR tends to be framed in the broader context of student engagement and voice, with a common purpose around enabling student perspectives to be gathered, listened to, and to inform enhancement and educational change. SAR continues to be valued highly with potential benefits for multiple stakeholders and is perceived to influence change in academic and wider aspects of the student experience. However, there are also common challenges and areas that provide opportunity for future development, and there are numerous local developments underway to ensure that SAR remains relevant and effective in the changing context of HE in England.

Where student voice has traditionally rested on consultation (which is often the case in Australia) there are challenges for institutions in implementing a partnership model. For some the effective exercise of SAR may be impeded by the reality or perception of power imbalances between institutions and student bodies, and by institutional culture. It was seen that there is still a need to build support for and engagement with SAR as a partnership model and for developing strong working relationships between institution, staff, student bodies and student associations is seen as critical to success.

Responsibility for the development of SAR systems tends to lie with students’ associations though often it may in reality be shared with their institutions Training tends to be led by students’ associations. Roles in recruitment and selection processes for representatives vary. Joint activities typically include: promoting SAR, collaboratively acting on issues raised through SAR, recruitment and selection, and developing shared strategic visions and documents relating to student engagement and representation.

The articulated purpose of SAR varied with interviewees. Generally it included dealing with academic matters such as quality, curriculum design, development, validity and delivery, and wider student experience issues. A key question was whether the SAR operates mainly to provide feedback on current experiences, or whether it is permitted to have a more proactive role in areas such as curriculum and course development. Student voice towards quality assurance and quality enhancement was a common element of how SAR was defined and articulated.

While this purpose may vary across disciplines, faculties and campuses essentially it is seen as being integral to gathering student voice, to feeding into discussions and developments, and as part of decision-making processes.

More could be done to clarify and communicate the overarching shared role of SAR as a system:
Without a clearly articulated purpose for SAR, there can be misunderstandings and a lack of clarity around the role of individual student representatives and how they work with provider staff at the local level’.

The report questions where the boundaries of SAR lie, and what activities could be legitimately included in the definition of ‘representation’ (a matter which was discussed extensively during my collaborative workshop program).

Many participants recognised the inclusivity of SAR as a challenge, in the context of the changing nature of the student body and modes of study, and were thinking about how to address this (in some cases collaboratively)’. Among the challenges there were those relating to student demographics, for example student groups with limited campus contact.

Staff engagement with SAR is essential and currently varies according to their attitudes to and understanding of the system and its value. Factors identified included pressures on staff time and resources, and difficulties in accepting student views which were uncomfortable. Student representation is perceived to be strongest where there is a positive commitment from staff (at all levels) to the SAR process and generally to wide student engagement in the institution. The Report reinforces the importance for staff to be supported, resourced and trained to work with SAR systems (also discussed extensively in my workshops and during my dissemination activities).

Students’ perceptions of SAR were also seen to be challenging: how to encourage students to appreciate they could become representatives, for them to know how or with whom to raise issues, and for existing representatives to see their role in the context of the wider work of the students’ association.

There was also the view that operation of SAR through institutional structures and mechanisms can be problematic in creating power imbalances and a lack of flexibility in promoting student representative participation. Participants reported exploring more informal and interactive models of engagement.

These findings reinforce our view of the huge importance of training and support for both students and staff.

Training for representatives
Training was identified as an area where work needs to be done to ensure that it is delivered effectively to student representatives and that the content delivered is addressing student representative needs. This includes differentiating the training for representatives in more senior roles.

The value and impact of SAR
This area is obviously of most importance to the sector in Australia as we work towards facilitating sustaining student partnership models. The research found that SAR has benefits for institutions through ‘contributing an alternative perspective to ensure the currency and relevance of the offer to students’ and keeping ‘the student perspective at the centre of what the provider does’. It is also seen as an opportunity for sharing practice between disciplines and as having value to the culture and community of an institution.

SAR benefits individual student representatives through personal and professional development, and students’ unions through building reputation and credibility with the provider leading to political benefits. SAR should also benefit the wider student population and there are also developmental benefits to individual provider staff.

SAR was reported to drive and inform change in diverse aspects of academic delivery and quality including teaching quality; module and assessment design; responding to course survey feedback; influencing plans for course moves, closures, and redesigns; influencing changes in module selection processes; changes to the academic framework and timetable; input into specific learning and teaching projects; and informing Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) submissions.

What this means for us
The importance of this research is the value it places on the exercise of student voice through student representative systems. Of equal importance is learning from the challenges the research identifies and the responses it suggests.

The strongest lesson is the importance of building relationships and embedding an ethos of partnership, and supporting all participants within the system. Partnership models that seek to address power imbalances are essential.

It is important to recognise that student representative systems are neither static nor can they be uniform across our diverse tertiary education sector. They need to be adapted to institutional context and to a changing landscape.

This research is both timely and encouraging.

Sally Varnham
6 November 2017

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