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Student representation

Issues relating to true representation have received some attention in the workshops so far. It has been noted several times that the term ‘representative’ presumes that students who participate in decision making processes represent the views of the student cohort. This is followed by doubt as to whether this is actually the case.

This is a complex issue and one that some might dismiss as a question of semantics. However, it is one of the central co…nsiderations of student engagement towards partnership.
Student representatives should not be perceived as representing certain groups. Student cohorts are heterogeneous and for many issues different groups within the student body may well hold different views.

The role of student representatives is to represent their fellow students to the extent of the impact the issue under consideration is likely to have on the student community as a whole. This should include the particular impact the issue may have on specific groups.

A key principal of authentic student partnership in decision making is ensuring that every student has opportunity to present their views on issues that affect them. There will be situations where students are provided with precisely that opportunity but clearly if every student were to participate in every decision, decision making would grind to a halt. The role of the representative is to gather opinion so that they can fairly stand in the stead of all students in decision making processes.

Decisions have to be made in circumstances where there may be a range of conflicting views as to the best course of action. Reaching a decision requires a careful evaluation of as many views as possible and the consequences of pursuing a particular course of action over another. Student representatives are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that they understand the various perspectives of the student body as a whole. The well-prepared student representative is able to articulate specific concerns so that they can be taken into consideration into the decision- making process.

The critical factor of course is to ensure that decisions do not discriminate unfairly against one or more stakeholder groups and it is in this context that capturing pertinent views is essential. Representation may involve a political element but it is not about factional politics.

Being an effective and professional student representative is not easy. A key challenge is to ensure that student representatives are well trained, supported and equipped to gather the input they need from fellow students and to decide on a rational view to take. The training function could well be undertaken by student leaders and their institutions working together, thus both acting in partnership and progressing a partnership culture. Experience abroad has shown this to be the case.

Sally Varnham

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