20 July 2020
Managing Adversity through Partnership: Representing Students in Quality through a time of Rapid Change
President 2018-20, University of Bath Students' Union and QAA Student Board Member
As higher education continues to grapple with the impact of the worst public health crisis we have experienced in a century, it might seem like a premature moment for reflection.
The pandemic has been a challenging time for all of us, both in the sector and across society. It’s certainly been an unenviable time to be a students’ union officer. As I finished my two years as President at The SU Bath last month, it coincided with the beginning of a sector-wide shift into a new phase of planning and innovation. For me, it felt like the right moment to look back on the last few months to consider what worked – and what didn’t.
Even in ‘normal’ times, as any of them will tell you, being an elected sabbatical officer in an SU is a wild experience. Often for the first time, you immediately gain a lot of proverbial hats. You’re a charity trustee, overseeing financial security and governance. You’re a caseworker, supporting individuals, as well as a mediator, settling disputes between groups. You’re a salesperson, trying to break down complex policy issues in engaging ways, and encourage feedback on them. You’re both an activist organising outside the system, and a negotiator within it. You’re a voice for hundreds of diverse experiences, and an oracle of ‘what students think’.
We ran for election to improve the student experience – fixing the rent or sorting out the buses. None of us can have expected the unprecedented shape that the 2020 student experience would take.
During the initial transition to online learning, many student officers faced significant student anxiety as a result of the uncertainties the pandemic created. In the first week, I had petitions in my inbox calling for a wide range of actions: cancelling all exams, suspending rent payments, introducing a no-detriment/safety-net policy, refunding tuition fees. Students desperately needed clarity. Officers at different SUs around the country have been communicating regularly, sharing frustrations and comparing policies and approaches. Early on, we found a universal sense of confusion. So often in our sector, we look to other institutions to find a general sense of good practice. In this case, this wasn’t possible; we had an unprecedented situation, provoking new responses and varying details. Misinformation spread easily.
In this context, it was really important for student officers to be equipped with the tools to work with their providers on ensuring quality. QAA’s advice and guidance, including resources specifically for students’ unions, helped establish a common understanding of what we should expect. There were clear guidelines: that providers should involve relevant student union officers in response planning frameworks, that they consult students on decisions on credit and awards, and that they communicate clearly with students, even if they didn’t have significant updates.
Providers that actively partnered with SUs in policy and decision-making quickly delivered effective responses. They weren’t always perfect – no emergency transition can be – but they accounted for students’ diverse and pressing needs in a way acceptable to them.
At The SU Bath, we were able to scrutinise the University's 'No Detriment' policy, and gather student experiences of online learning. Through this, SU officers worked with the University to agree a capturing process for online learning engagement data, a classification safety-net guarantee for final-year students, and extensions available to doctoral students. To gather feedback, we involved academic reps, international students, and postgraduates via tailored Microsoft Teams sites, and created a social media 'Corona Community' with nearly 4,000 students.
Equality and diversity issues were particularly important. QAA’s guidance spoke about the need to avoid creating new barriers for disabled students, or those experiencing digital poverty. Officers have been pointing out how the rush online often left some students behind – my colleague Molly Smallwood, Vice President (Academic Representation) at Edge Hill Students’ Union, wrote in her recent QAA Blog about the need to provide a quality experience for disabled students. In these issues and others, it was empowering for officers to enter decision-making spaces with the support of trusted sector guidance.
It’s easy to dismiss students as naive to the enormous practical challenge of that transition. The reality is that when given all the information and actively involved in finding solutions, students are usually understanding. Even if their experience doesn’t look how they originally thought, students who’ve shaped it are more likely to accept it.
QAA’s new set of reflective questions call for consideration of co-creation and student engagement. There should be student officers included in policy writing and decision-making, regular student-friendly communications, and active consideration of student needs in the initial discussion stages. As we look to the challenging time ahead for higher education, partnership working is more important than ever.