In recent years much of the national discussion has been about various exciting student engagement schemes – such as Students as Change Agents, Student Fellows Scheme and a whole host of other schemes. Here Guild HE’s Alex Bols argues that it should not be forgotten that student representation plays a key, and quite different, role within institutions- and we must continue to ensure there is innovation in student representation.
There has been significant investment in student representation over the last decade from both students’ unions and institutions. However, in many institutions these enhancements have tended to focus on student representation in isolation rather than considering the inter-linked issues of staff engagement with representation and the more general question of the effectiveness of the university committee structure.
This has resulted in significant improvements to election turn-out, training, support and effectiveness of student representation. However, after a point the impact of this investment will begin to plateau unless there is also a wider focus on these other dimensions. This is particularly important if we consider the ultimate aim of student representation being delivering educational change.
This question of engaging academic staff came out time and again in my research, questioning the way in which academic staff are engaged with student representation processes and the extent to which they saw the benefits of representation and therefore invested time in the process. For example, whilst many institutions run training for student representatives, there is often little training available for staff about how to get the most out of student engagement.
The question of training for staff was raised in the particular context of there being the perception of a power-imbalance between student representatives and staff within institutions. Training was seen as the means by which staff might be made aware of this perception, so that they would take steps to mitigate its influence and thus enable better engagement by representatives.
Thinking about enhancing student representation there has been a wider recognition of the need for reps to speak on behalf of the whole student cohort – including ‘hard to reach’ students – and their wider responsibilities to be truly representative. There is also increasing recognition of the necessity of student representatives to reflect the wider student cohort, drawing from the widest possible diversity of the student body.
As with the wider phenomenon of identity politics it is likely that students will be more likely to be prepared to speak to representatives who look and sound like themselves and seem better able to empathise with their experiences.
This all makes it more important for those running student representation systems to gather the data of the demographics involved in student representation. This will enable them to map those involved against the demographics of the students whom they are representing and so be able to monitor who is engaging in these activities and whether there is any ‘hard to reach’ group that needs to be targeted to ensure a more reflective cohort of student representatives.
Student rep behaviours
This ability of student representatives to advocate on behalf of the wider student cohort also led to discussions about the ideal student representative. Whilst recognising the importance of representatives from across the student cohort, it is worth considering whether there are certain behaviours that could be common to all student representatives. This could be a tool to help people considering becoming representatives, developing training to enhance these skills as well as supporting representatives to reflect on their own role.
I have previously identified four possible key behaviours for student representatives: being chameleonic, good communicators, policy actors and representing an internal externality. However, during the research, a number of themes and additional characteristics emerged – such as empathy, criticality and expertise – that could form the basis of an enlarged set of behaviours and will form the basis of future research.
So in conclusion as we think about how student representation systems might continue to develop and be enhanced in the future, we should consider how reps are both able to better speak on behalf of all students and how we engage a wider range of students in these activities. This might include a wider notion of a set of professional behaviours for student representatives. However, whilst it is possible to enhance student representation it will only be by looking at the inter-locking factors of effective student representatives, engaged staff and an effective committee structure that we shall genuinely develop an effective system that delivers educational change for students.
This blog has attempted to summarise my article in The Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change.