Hearing Students Loud and Clear

Topic: A Western Mail Article on Student Engagement by Jacqui Hare, Chair of the HEW Learning and Teaching Advisory Group

Students no longer have to shout or wave placards to get their voices heard at universities in Wales.  Across the country, students are actively engaging at every level within their institutions. Gone are the days when students only saw the Vice-Chancellor at graduation! Today’s students don’t just want more interaction with decision makers, but rather better quality interaction and to be involved in decision making processes.

There are many committees, forums and review panels that meet regularly at universities at different strategic levels, and it’s important that student representatives have the support to develop. NUS Wales works hard on the ‘Have Your Say’ project, a toolkit focused on recruitment and development of course representatives across Wales. The project is part of the Wales Initiative for Student Engagement (WISE), a cross- sector initiative that aims to reinforce, share and develop good practice in approaches to student engagement.

This project is paying dividends – more students than ever are getting their voices heard. Take Bangor University – there are currently 225 student representatives in the Schools alone, coordinated in conjunction with the Students’ Union. With Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities working ever more closely, student representation is significant and active, and both institutions are keen to tap into this resource further in the future.

Over the last year, the University of Wales, Newport has doubled its number of course reps, and appointed a Course Representation Coordinator. The University has also developed Student Mentoring training to incorporate elements of coaching and motivational techniques for students keen to take on a more interactive role.

Sharing good practice is hugely important, so much so that the Higher Education Academy Wales has established a ‘Students as Partners’ work strand as part of a wider enhancement project ‘Future Directions’. The Students as Partners group is collecting examples of good practice, working with students’ unions, universities and sector agencies across Wales.

Dr Nick Potter, Chair of the ‘Students as Partners’ work strand and Head of Quality, Learning and Teaching at Swansea Metropolitan explains:

“ The view is that institutions are working hard to engage students at every level from course representation to curriculum development. The Future Directions conference ‘Graduates for our future’ to be held in April 2012, will not only enable the group to show off good practice in Wales but also to set out even more ambitious plans for the future.”

Those plans could include a version of the University of Glamorgan’s ‘Student Voice Representatives’ (SVR) that has proved so successful for that university over the last three years. The SVRs have integrated with the army of course reps, using student-friendly means of communicating via Facebook and Twitter – making feedback almost instantaneous.

Ensuring that robust engagement from student representatives is seamless from one cohort to another, Swansea University have a training programme for new sabbatical officers. This includes shadowing key staff, training on the working of committees and handover meetings between incoming and outgoing teams. This has proved invaluable, building the confidence of students making their first steps into engaging with university management. Glyndwr University also introduced a handover process for sabbatical officers to ensure continuity, and have established a partnership with the Guild, academic registry and the associate director for student experience.

At Cardiff University, students have been central to the development of the new learning and teaching strategy, aiming to enrich the experience for staff and students. Through their Learning and Teaching Strategy initiative, the University and the Students’ Union arranged a focus group to gather student feedback on the learning experience at Cardiff. This information formed the basis of the core principles within the new strategy.

UWIC and the University of Wales: Trinity Saint David, along with every university in Wales, worked with their student bodies on the drafting of tuition fee plans for submission to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. These plans will enable universities to vary the level of the graduate contribution from 2012/13. The plans outline how they intend to meet the Welsh Government’s legitimate expectations on improving access to higher education from traditionally underrepresented groups and promote the advantages of higher education. It was recognised that the processes already firmly established in universities to engage students, would pay dividends during this process. Although some discussions were challenging, the level of discussion and feedback from students ensured that the student voice was heard loud and clear, and is testament to how far universities have travelled in engaging students.

The 21st century student is enthusiastic, committed and keen to engage with university leaders. They bring an added dimension and viewpoint to discussions that can be hugely beneficial and we look forward to encouraging even greater interaction as we move forward into a new funding and graduate contribution regime across the UK.