The NStEP to Letterkenny, 8 May 2018


Letterkenny 8 May 2018
Letterkenny 8 May 2018

There is lots happening in the world of the National Student Engagement Programme (NStEP), including the very welcome prospect of a second meeting of the network being held in Letterkenny on Tuesday, 8 May 2018.

The theme of the network meeting is “Overcoming Challenges to Student Engagement”. which provides us with the fantastic opportunity to learn from one another, while also energising us to confront some of the issues we are each facing.

NCI and NCISU have been invited to participate directly on a number of different levels, including providing a ‘lightning talk’ before lunch regarding the challenges facing part time students within the context of student engagement, while also hosting a national project session after lunch regarding progress on, and plans for, NStEP Project 1: The Role and Recruitment of Class Representatives. Indeed, the NStEP Project 1: 3rd Team Meeting is slated for Tuesday, 15 May 2018, one week after the second NStEP network meeting, so there is real momentum here.

The agenda for the second NStEP network meeting, which is being hosted by Letterkenny Institute of Technology, follows below:

Overcoming Challenges to Student Engagement
Overcoming Challenges to Student Engagement

It looks like a great day in prospect, with the perfect excuse of the preceding bank holiday weekend to do some exploring. Let the sun shine!

NStEP Project 1 – 2nd Team Meeting: … that seemed to go quite well


Perhaps it was the Scottish shortbread which did the trick, but that really felt like it went quite well. Of course, we have yet to see the ‘To Do List’ which will emerge, and we have serious suspicions that the names coupled with actions, suggestions, etc., will not hide the fact that there is real work to be done in the weeks ahead, but it still felt like that second meeting went, err, quite well. Have we said that already?

With today’s turnout of nine people in the room supplemented by three more joining us as if by magic through a combination of Skype and speakerphone, it looks like we have quickly moved from forming to storming and just a little beyond.

As we mentioned previously in NStEP Project 1 – 2nd Team Meeting: further preparatory work …, there is a lot of goodwill. But, that can only take you so far. Much more than that, we’re also now going to be able to gauge our progress in practical terms. This means that, for example, by the time we next meet, we will need to be upfront and honest about where we are with the aforementioned ‘To Do List’. That’s putting it up to us all as project members!

Coming down from the sugar high of the all butter toffee and pecan biscuits, coupled with their all butter chocolate siblings, reality is also suddenly dawning. Indeed, looking at the scribbles in front of us, dashed as they are across today’s agenda, as well as the hieroglyphics on the minutes from the last meeting, there is a growing suspicion that these could actually turn into outcomes because the goodwill is now also translating into people taking responsibility. Bully for us!

Our next project team meeting will be in mid-/late May, by which stage we’ll have real evidence to base the hope that this project is in danger of succeeding, as well it should and as it now must.

NStEP Project 1 - 2nd Team Meeting
NStEP Project 1 – 2nd Team Meeting



NStEP Project 1 – 2nd Team Meeting: further preparatory work …

Okay, this time we think that we may be slightly ahead of ourselves. But, that is only because we’re posting towards close of play on the Friday before the NStEP Project 1 – 2nd Team Meeting being held next Tuesday afternoon. This makes a change from blogging on the morning of the meeting (see NStEP Project 1 – 1st Team Meeting: some preparatory work … by way of comparison). So, at the very least, that’s progress, even if only of a sort.

When we look at the initial follow-up to that first meeting (see NStEP Project 1 – 1st Team Meeting: … and early findings, thoughts and actions), and reflect on what we’ve been doing since, well then the verdict may still be out in some quarters, certainly in terms of substantial progress coming out any distance ahead of distracted cogitating!

The truth however is that, when it comes to NStEP, things are now happening thick and fast.

Indeed, the other four project teams have already met or are planning to meet very soon, which is why this NStEP Project 1 – 2nd Team Meeting is so timely. This also makes a progress report on our list of ‘To Dos’ both necessary and worrying. Where and how our efforts connect to the other four national projects and contribute to NStEP as a whole is being mapped out too (see the NStEP Projects Map). Lots happening, lots to do.

In addition, doubtlessly to help spur things along, the NStEP Project Chairs also met late last month with the support of QQI, the HEA, sparqs, and USI. They, in turn, put a plan in place to meet regularly from now on, with the second of these NStEP Project Chairs meetings scheduled for next Wednesday morning. Timing is everything.

So, how ready are we for next Tuesday afternoon and the second meeting of the project examining The Role and Recruitment of Class Representatives? Well, let’s see now:

  • Draft agenda circulated? Yes.
  • Minutes disseminated? Finally!
  • Progress made on ‘Actions’? Hmm … not so sure, if we’re to be honest.
  • Room(s) booked? Check.
  • Technology enabled? Perhaps!?!
  • Biscuits bought? Not yet.

There was clearly a lot of goodwill when we first met, so let’s see where our next meeting takes us, particularly in terms of measuring progress on the outputs we’re promising … yikes!!!

NStEP Projects Map
NStEP Projects Map


NStEP Project 1 – 1st Team Meeting: … and early findings, thoughts, and actions

As is the way with such things, once the NStEP Project 1 – 1st Team Meeting was up-and-running, it all became a little clearer regarding what it is that we are tasked with doing and what we will need to do to make a success of it across the next twelve to fifteen months.

Centred on The Role and Recruitment of Class Representatives, the brief we are working to provides the following outline:

  1. The Role and Recruitment of Class Representatives

Reports from the National Student Training Programme Pilot and the Institutional Analysis Pilot will inform the work of this project. The work should address the challenges institutions face with recruiting, maintaining and working with Class Representatives.

In addition to creating national guidelines the project work plan may include:

  • Drafting a Class Rep Role definition guide
  • Selecting best practice case studies for class rep recruitment
  • Exploring and analysing the systems in place to monitor and mentor Class Reps
  • Investigating and reporting on the options available to recognise/reward the work of Class Reps
  • Determining how the partnership ethos of NStEP may be embedded in the coordination of Class Rep structures.

Thus, the agenda for the first meeting drew on this guidance, while also seeking to place our project within its wider context, for example: in terms of the other four new – as well as the ongoing – NStEP projects; with full regard to more general conversations taking place within Higher Education regarding student engagement; while also taking note of other developments that are impacting (e.g. the possible implications of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which will come into effect on 25th May 2018).

This could have led to a packed agenda but, fortified by chocolate (see the tongue in cheek sparqs tweet and our retweet), it allowed those attending to move the discussion along, at the same time as identifying some ‘To Dos’ each to be advanced by the next time we meet.

In addition to NCI and NCISU acting as hosts, those in attendance included staff/student representatives from Dublin City University, Hibernia College, and Institute of Technology Tralee, as well as partner colleagues from NStEP, sparqs, and USI. In fact, we not only had apologies from others unable to attend this first meeting, we also had requests from others to take part next time around. As noted before, we are up-and-running.

NStEP Project 1 - 1st Team Meeting
NStEP Project 1 – 1st Team Meeting


NStEP Project 1 – 1st Team Meeting: some preparatory work …

Suddenly it’s the morning of NStEP Project 1 – 1st Team Meeting, which essentially is the start of a piece of work that, over the next year or so, will see a number of staff, students and student representatives from across the sector meeting at various intervals to explore, curate and develop resources on the following theme: The Role and Recruitment of Class Representatives.

The QA@NCI blog has been a bit remiss in recording the progress made over the last number of weeks and months in this regard, including not reporting back on the National Student Engagement Network Launch at Cork Institute of Technology held on 13 November 2017. But, even looking at them now, the scribbled notes from that event are revealing and hint at the project workstreams to come.

National Student Engagement Network Launch, 13 November 2017
National Student Engagement Network Launch, 13 November 2017

One of the features of the launch event was an NStEP Projects World Café where a number of us present and involved in this particular project began to explore what might be meant by this term, what effective practice is already out there, and what we might want to prioritise. Ultimately, the group discussing this issue felt that it was important to identify tangible benefits and outcomes, in part through creating concrete outputs while also taking advantage of those that already exist.

Not surprisingly, the café meeting on this project thus sought to take full advantage of inputs from student representatives, as well as staff, both national and institutional. In making an effort to define the role, in part by drawing upon established resources such as written constitutions, it was interesting to see the conversation range from effective practices regarding the recruitment of students to efforts at involving staff in the training of class representatives, from the issue of sufficient resources aimed at enabling representation to the question of how best to support student representative continuity (e.g. from year to year). In addition, there was some discussion regarding the practicalities of class representation, such as how meetings run, what might be done to support student representatives in and around such forums, as well as some exploration in relation to what matters to raise and how to report back to students.

After the national event, an effort was made to create a Draft Work Plan and some Draft Terms of Reference – see The Role and Recruitment of Class Representatives – draft terms of reference and work plan for more details. The first meeting of The Role and Recruitment of Class Representatives project grouping is later today, so let’s see if the preparatory work undertaken helps it to get off to a decent start!

“Architects of their experience”

TSEP publication

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 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
  • Reputation


  • Emotional
  • Personal development
  • Professional development


  • Reputation and credibility
  • Political
  • Culture and community
  • Currency and relevance
  • Informing improvement


  • 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.

NCISU class rep training, 13 October 2017

The annual invitation for QA@NCI to meet and speak with the new NCISU class representatives, to answer their questions and to establish a point of contact with them, was no less welcome this year than it has been in the past. Indeed, this opportunity to get directly involved, to listen to what our student volunteers are telling us, and to consider what we might want to do next is one of the highlights of the academic calendar, so sincere thanks to Stephen Cleary (NCISU president) and his team for inviting us back again this year.

As 2017-18 unfolds, we were asked to speak with NCISU class reps on the topic of NStEP and NCI’s role within it, which was very timely given the potential that this national programme is now realising across the sector, as well as locally at institutions like our own.

The training and development of class reps is an NStEP priority; the fact that it aligns so closely with NCISU’s own imperatives means that progress is now being made in our understanding of a number of student engagement principles including ‘transparency’, ‘collegiality and parity of esteem’, and ‘feedback and feedback loop’ (see Taking Next StEPs for more details).

NCI and NCISU have been asked to lead on the NStEP project entitled “the role and recruitment of class representatives”, more of which in due course. But, if it the outcomes of the national project are anything like the openness on display today at this training event, as demonstrated in the willingness of our class reps to get involved, and their developing awareness of the possibilities inherent in learner representation, then it should prove to be a success.

NStEP and NCI's role within it
NStEP and NCI’s role within it