The Challenge of Student Engagement

This speech was delivered in my capacity as a member of NUS’ National Executive Council at the Quality Strategy Network’s December 2009 Symposium.

Good morning everyone.

I’ll start by extending a thank-you to the QSN for inviting me to the event today and allowing me to speak on an issue that is really at the core of the student experience.

The ways in which students engage in the learning process can make or break the experience they have in Higher EducationGetting students involved in shaping their learning process can fundamentally change the outcome of that students time at university, and that’s why it is absolutely vital that we attempt to engage all students, from all backgrounds, at all times.

Whilst this a fantastic idea in theory, in practice making students actively engage with the decision making process and engaging in a way that allows them to shape their learning is more difficult.

For want of a better word, in the ‘ideal’ scenario, all students would be the same. All would study similar courses, be of a similar age group, be actively seeking to shape their learning provider and experience, and students’ unions would help to facilitate that dialogue between the student body and the institution. The three parties would work in partnership to promote an ‘ideal’ learning environment, students would have an equally positive learning experience and universities would see higher retention and attainment.

Unfortunately for institutions and for students’ unions, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, the student population is far more diverse than that. The student body of the 1950s is not the same as it is today.

Over 40% of young people are now entering Higher Education. The sector enrols more part-time and mature students than it ever has before, and they now make up an overwhelming majority of the student population. Students seeking postgraduate qualifications continue to increase. International students are flocking to the UK in their tens of thousands every year.

The huge variations in types of students is so large now, that the sector is unrecognisable from even 10 or 20 years ago. And thus, the challenge for both institutions, students’ unions and for NUS, is to ensure that we not only cater for our traditional “bread-and-butter” 18-25 year old members, but also to provide for our silent majorities that are those part-time, post-graduates, mature and international students. We must represent the hyper-diversity of the student body and ensure that they are engaged in the system.

And it’s important we do this because we know it’s what students want. Research into the divergence between how involved students feel they are in shaping their course, and how involved they would like to be, show a complete contrast.

In a sample of 2400 under-graduate students, 21% felt that they were not at all involved in shaping their course, and only 5% felt very involved. When asked how involved they would like to be, those numbers reversed, with 5% wanting less involvement or none at all and 21% wanting to be actively involved.

If we are to treat students as consumers; as paying customers with demands and wants; rather than partners or co-producers – which seems to be the trend of opinion amongst Vice-chancellors and government ministers – then surely we should be acting upon this and making it happen. Equally, if we are to treat them as partners, then we should be pressing ahead with this agenda, as it has benefits for all parties concerned.

Challenge one then, is recognising the diversity of the student population and following on from that recognising that students, be they consumers, co-producers, partners or products, want to be in control of their learning and their course. And if that is challenge one, then challenge two must be the question of how to engage students in shaping their course content and learning experience.

Notwithstanding the ever increasing hyper-diversity of the student population, the traditional methods of engagement don’t carry so much weight any more with those bread-and-butter full-time undergraduates. Simply wallpapering corridors with posters and expecting a huge turnout to your students’ union AGM or a curriculum focus group won’t cut it with your 21st century student body; even though these are perhaps the most important ways for them to shape their learning experience.

Today’s ‘traditional’ students expect more from their institutions and from their students’ unions. They expect more innovative ways of getting involved and ways that make that engagement easy for them; in many ways, that makes the task for students’ unions harder, and easier at the same time. Harder, because there are so many different ways that we can use to engage those students in consultation and decision making, but easier because many of those tools get straight to the heart of social circles; they allow us to get to students in places we couldn’t even imagine 10 years ago. Most of that is through advances in technology – sites like Facebook and Twitter and Youtube – but this movement can be supported by better resourcing and funding of our HE students’ unions, and they must be supported in this way.

A blog post might be circulated enough to make people aware of the opportunity to shape their experience, but students’ unions need to make sure their officers and volunteers are out of their union offices and on all their campuses, talking to students, getting to know the issues and making sure the right message is being put across to their universities. The onus is then on institutions to listen and take note and to work with students and the students’ union to make it happen.

Of course when you factor in the student populations’ hyper-diversity, there suddenly comes a mountain to climb to represent that breadth of difference. Students’ unions traditionally haven’t had to consider that hyper-diversity and so now aren’t equipped to represent the interests of non-traditional students. And so again, it is vital that students unions are resourced properly, but this is not the only thing they need.

Implementing measures like ensuring guaranteed part-time, post-graduate, mature and international student representation within the students’ union executive committee is an important step to making sure their interests are represented and this can be achieved by reviewing the students’ union constitution.

Even less complex, when planning activities and forums, don’t just consider the impact on ‘students’ as a whole, but break down the group and consider each group on their own. It is only by micro-analytical-consideration that the partnership between students and their institutions will be successfully facilitated on a macro-level.

There is one other angle to look at too. There has been a pre-requisite so far that these students are on campus at least some of the time. Many institutions though have distance learners and so for students’ unions another piece of the puzzle must be wedged into place. How can you engage someone that you will never be able to meet face-to-face? Again, web technologies must play a part in this, and it is further evidence that the traditional engagement model of ‘lets set up a meeting in the students union building at 3:00pm on a Monday’ is becoming increasingly redundant. Just like part-time students that aren’t on campus every day, or the post-graduate that has teaching commitments for most of the week, or the mature student, who’s a single mum with huge outside commitments, distance learners need a more innovative way of being involved. What shape that takes is very much down to the learner and the institution, but as I’ve evidenced, it needs to happen in order for those students to get the most out of their higher education experience.

The third, and perhaps most conflicting challenge takes place outside of the university environment entirely and centres around the pressures of being a 21st century student. Perhaps the biggest barrier to a student being involved in shaping their university experience is the need to be financially stable.

Unlike the students of the 1960s and 1970s, who were lucky enough to be fully grant maintained, todays students priorities contend on many fronts. Not only do the majority of students now take on part-time jobs to supplement their income during their courses – some even taking on full time jobs whilst studying full-time as well – but there is also the pressure of fees and loans mounting in the background to the tune of over £23,000. Financially, students have never had it so bad, and yet even though students contribute 25% of the cost of their degrees, they are still isolated from influencing their experience because of other commitments. Student support is failing to support students and in turn universities and students’ unions need to step up their efforts to ensure that those students are not isolated and they have to the ways and means to inform the decision making process in a non-traditional manner.

In reality, engaging students is never an easy task, but students’ unions need to continue to challenge themselves. No one method alone with cut it when you’re dealing with a student population that is so diverse. And equally, no university or student population or students’ union is the same, so the methods used at Cambridge might not work at Bristol. Just as our members are hyper-diverse so to must be our campaigning efforts, our consultations, our debates, our decision making processes and our ways of ensuring engagement.  Students’ unions and universities must be open and transparent and NUS will work to support that change.