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30 April 2019

Bringing Students to the Table


Matt Adie
Co-Chair, Student Strategic Advisory Committee, QAA

Back in 2004, I was elected to my primary school’s Pupil Council as the class representative for Primary 5A. Setting aside the Great House Points Fiasco of January 2005, it would be fair to say this wasn’t the most challenging or contentious of roles. Our discussions largely focused on the lack of decent felt-tip pens or making frequent requests for extended lunchbreaks – all of which were duly rejected. There were certainly no UK-wide policy frameworks for us to wade through, or statutory consultations to decode and answer.

That was 15 years ago and, for me, it represented the start of a long journey as a student engaged with enhancing the quality of the student experience. In comparison with the sophisticated set-up we have today for engaging the voices of students within UK HE, my primary school experience may appear somewhat primitive. But in fact, the drivers behind it and the outcomes achieved are similar. In both cases, the fundamental desire behind our efforts to engage students was, and remains, to capture the many voices and perspectives they bring to the table.

Today, the ‘lived’ experience of being an HE student in the here and now offers a fresh perspective on current issues – outside the creativity inhibitors of institutional politics, or debates about what is or isn’t possible within institutional resources.

During my time in the HE sector, I’ve always found the student voice to be most powerful when it’s partnered with those of academic and professional services decision-makers. As veritable learning and teaching ‘dream teams’, they combine the creativity and externality of the student perspective with the institutional know-how of making change happen. This can facilitate the solution of the most complex of issues.

QAA’s Student Strategic Advisory Committee performs this function at sector level, providing counsel and advice to QAA’s Board on current issues within higher education, ensuring the student voice is at the forefront of QAA’s activities and decision-making.  

The Committee brings together some of the brightest minds in student engagement from across the UK and is representative of the diversity of UK higher education provision. At our annual Quality Matters conference, we hear directly from student representatives and quality professionals on the issues most concerning them about student engagement in quality. Armed with this intelligence, we set our sights on delivering a number of enhancement-led projects, designed to directly address the concerns of the sector. Projects currently being progressed by the Committee include:

  • developing specific resources to support better engagement of students on diverse programmes of study (for example, HE in further education, degree apprenticeships, international students)
  • ensuring effective engagement of students in the development and implementation of new UK quality assurance approaches
  • providing a UK-wide triangulation of student opinion, to ensure the student voice feeds into the heart of all sector policy consultation activities
  • embedding a student perspective in the development of QAA’s new membership services.

The UK is rightly recognised internationally for its leadership in student engagement, both at provider and sector level. Indeed, Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to introduce student reviewers as part of every institutional review team, back in 2003. Today, student engagement is a key feature in the practices of the revised UK Quality Code, supported by dedicated Advice and Guidance.  

But we can never rest on our laurels. Looking ahead, we need to continue to work together as a sector to meet some of the key challenges facing student engagement in the coming years, including:

  • improving our use of evidence to demonstrate the need for, and impact of, enhancement
  • engaging students in more risk-based regulatory and quality assessment systems
  • supporting the engagement of increasingly diverse student cohorts
  • engaging students studying through the UK’s wide portfolio of transnational education (TNE) programmes and partnerships around the world.

As we move into the next chapter of our sector’s development – which is likely to see providers under considerable pressure to change their ways of working in response to internal and external challenges – it’s important not to lose sight of the value and critical insights that students can bring to the table.