The Student Engagement Partnership (TSEP) works in conjunction with the National Union of Students (NUS), as well as other stakeholders involved in Higher Education in England, to champion and develop student engagement knowledge and practice. Through its work, TSEP seeks “to equip student engagement professionals, practitioners and decision-makers across the sector with the knowledge and skills they need to make a success of student engagement in their context” (see http://tsep.org.uk/ for more details).
With this purpose it mind, it should be noted that the recent TSEP publication on student academic representation – see Abbi Flint, Hannah Goddard & Ellie Russell, “Architects of their experience: the role, value and impact of student academic representation systems in Higher Education in England” (London: TSEP, 2017), for the main report – offers up an engaging analysis, as well as a useful set of resources including a benchmarking tool, a literature review, and a summary poster.
The focus of these materials is student representation, in particular the student voice within the context of student academic engagement (i.e. engagement in and with learning). It is not necessarily an easy task to provide a summary regarding the rich resources on offer here; frankly, these documents deserve exploration on their own merits as they will have different meanings for Higher Education institutions depending on how and where they operate. This being said, even the most cursory of readings reveals that they could readily be employed to support thinking, review and action in a range of scenarios and contexts.
Of the report’s ten recommendations, the one that leaps out reads as follows:
“Reflect on and consider how to address power differentials which may inhibit effective representation. In some cases, this may include visible signs of where power lies, such as: who chairs meetings; who acts on issues brought through representation; who sets the agenda for meetings; and, when and how different parties are enabled to speak.”
Without wishing to do a disservice to the breadth or depth of a report that examines a whole host of student academic representation matters, any attempt to consider or review how effectively class representative meetings are operating could do worse than to start with such basic considerations as group composition, dynamics and purpose.
In turn, while many participants in these meetings may perceive them as being “focused mainly on feeding back on current experiences”, often with an unfortunate focus on the negative rather than also accentuating the positive, the more ambitious hold “aspirations to have a more proactive, feeding forward role, particularly in curriculum and course development: to enable students to be ‘architects of their experience'”.
Indeed, when done well, the value of effective student academic representation to the wide range of institutional stakeholders are, according to this TSEP research, obvious:
- Alternative perspectives
- Current and relevant information to inform improvement
- Culture and community
TO INDIVIDUAL STUDENT REPRESENTATIVES
- Personal development
- Professional development
TO THE STUDENTS’ UNION
- Reputation and credibility
- Culture and community
- Currency and relevance
- Informing improvement
TO THE WIDER STUDENT BODY
- Being listened to
- Valuing their voice
- Changes secured on their behalf
And, once the easier to reach learner groups are on board – typically undergraduate, full time, near campus, etc. – every effort must be made to involve other, often less represented, groups be they students who are carers, international, mature, off-campus, part-time, postgraduate, etc.
At the same time, staff themselves, particularly but not necessarily only academic staff, must be at the forefront of effectively functioning student academic representation (SAR). The fact is that “staff engagement is important in supporting the operation of SAR at the local level, and how staff perceive, and are open to listening to, student contributions” will help to determine their utility and impact.
Ultimately, the impact of student academic representation can be profound, especially when effective practices are employed, such as appreciating how and when to communicate back to students, thereby closing the feedback loop. The fact is that, for everyone who is a member of a self-respecting learning community, most – if not all – of the points noted above should apply when it comes to the role, value and impact of effective representation in particular and the place of learner feedback more generally. These TSEP resources, which clearly resonate with NUS campaigning on this issue of student academic representation, deserve wide dissemination.