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19 May 2022

Students at the heart of quality


Emma Murphy

Education Officer, Queen's University Belfast Students’ Union

Sean Holm

PhD student, Swansea University

Ondrej Kucerak

Vice-President for Education, Aberdeen University Students’ Association

As QAA celebrates 25 years championing UK quality and standards, three members of QAA’s Student Strategic Advisory Committee (SSAC) provide their perspectives on how students engage in quality.

Engagement as a sabbatical officer (Emma Murphy, Education Officer, Queens’ University Belfast Students’ Union)

In July 2021, I assumed my position as Education Officer in Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union. My journey to becoming involved in the Students’ Union came through volunteering, both as a Lead Peer Mentor and a School Rep for my School. Through attending School Education Boards and hosting Student Voice Committees, I gained a greater understanding of how lecturers made decisions regarding our education and made changes for my peers such as improving employability events and extending deadlines for assessments. This inspired my decision to run for election as Education Officer and inspire change on a wider scale within the university.


As I began during the Summer, I quickly gained an understanding of the governance of educational decisions within the University and how students were a part of it. As part of the quality assurance mechanisms, I sit on several committees and groups in partnership with the University alongside other academic representatives and students. It is incredibly important that we have a seat at the table where these decisions are being made and that our voices are heard on a range of academic issues.


It was around this time that I gained a greater understanding of QAA and their work which shapes quality assurance in higher education. I also began to see how QAA is involved in promoting good practice, through conferences and outreach meetings with university staff members and student representatives like myself.


Following on from this, I also applied to become part of QAA’s Student Strategic Advisory Committee (SSAC). My application was successful, and I have enjoyed our meetings this year with student representatives from across the UK sharing their perspectives on national conversations in higher education. Understanding how grade inflation and how essay mills are perceived by students across the sector helped to inform how I could feed into conversations happening within my own institution.


Through these experiences, I have been able to work closely with the Quality Assurance staff at Queen’s University Belfast to ensure student voices are heard through quality assurance practices throughout each School. There is a robust section included within School’s Continuous Action for Programme Enhancement for Student Voice, and students can now become trained members for Programme Evaluation Meetings to design new programmes of study. These steps have meant that students can directly feed into decisions involving assessment and teaching styles to create change on their course for next year’s cohort of students. Personally, gaining more understanding of quality assurance practices through my role as Student Officer for Education in the Students’ Union has been incredibly interesting, and shaped decisions that I have made. I am excited to continue my journey in this field as I begin my role as Students’ Union President and ensure best practice within my institution and further afield.


Engagement as a postgraduate student (Sean Holm, PhD student, Swansea University

To ensure excellent quality for the delivery of higher education, I believe involvement of the key stakeholders in the quality review process is vital. As an active and engaged member of the postgraduate research and students’ union communities I have many avenues available to participate in the quality review process at all levels.


Engagement with feedback systems is a simple yet crucial role students can play in ensuring quality. These processes allow individual lecturers, departments and institutions to learn and develop best practices with a bottom-up approach. In my role as student representative, I also participate in the universities’ internal quality review process for degrees not associated with my own study. As a student this provides me with the unique opportunity to explore the quality framework within the University and to share my experience of what makes good quality with colleagues from across the University.


Participation on University committees enables me to directly influence quality at a much larger scale. Student insight at the committee level can help shape policy that has broad impacts on the delivery of quality education at departmental or even institutional level.


Uniquely, compared to taught degree programmes, postgraduate research students are on both ends of quality in higher education as beneficiaries in our capacity as students, and benefactors, in our capacity as teaching assistants, content creators and assessors. As such we directly impact on the delivery of quality higher education to students and are uniquely placed to shape current and future practices in quality. Furthermore, creating a culture amongst postgraduate researchers where quality matters sets a foundation for quality of higher education in future years as many do go on to join the ranks of academics at universities.


Last, but certainly not least, as a member of QAA’s SSAC I am part of a much wider community of students and professionals engaged in assuring quality across the sector. Though interactions with others from across many institutes and within QAA I have enhanced my understanding of quality and drawn from these experiences in creating frameworks that assure quality at my own university.


Engagement at the sectoral level (Ondrej Kucerak, Vice-President for Education, Aberdeen University Students’ Associate and Student Theme Lead for the Resilient Learning Communities Enhancement Theme):

Many of us have different perspectives on student engagement in quality, and many purposes that this practice fulfils. For me personally, it boils down to the basic principle of recognising that students are experts in learning. They naturally get exposed to different teaching styles and methods, building on their expertise throughout the duration of their time in higher education.


Over the last year, I have been fortunate to be the Student Lead for the Scottish Enhancement Theme - Resilient Learning Communities. This role involves facilitating the Student-Led Project, leading a group of student sabbatical officers and staff through the delivery of this project. From day one I wanted the members of the group to feel confident as leaders of quality and to feel ownership over different parts of our project. As a group, we have decided to explore the topic of ‘Promoting the Equity of the Student Learning Experience’. We felt that it was a core shared challenge for all universities and student associations and something that students feel passionately about addressing.


Producing a variety of outputs was something that would always prove challenging but was important to us given the different target audiences we are aiming to reach, as well as making sure that everyone can find an output which feels accessible to them and which they can meaningfully engage with. We recognised this challenge, but we also recognised the different areas of expertise around the (virtual) table. As a result, each of us has been able to take ownership for different outputs that fit our skills and expertise in quality, ensuring we produce meaningful outputs and resources.


It is important to note we were not alone. Throughout the project, we have been supported by sparqs (Student Partnerships in Quality Scotland) and QAA Scotland, who have provided guidance and enabled us to achieve our full potential in the project. I feel it is important that institutions have similar structures in place to support their students and their engagement in quality, and do not simply rely on students to ‘go on and do the work’.


Although not yet finished, I am beginning to see the impact of our work within universities, and more importantly, among their students. I believe it is important for all universities to continually review their partnership with students in the quality domain because, as experts in their own learning, students are well placed to advise on appropriate steps to enhance the student learning experience.


You can find out more about this year’s Enhancement Themes Student-Led Project on the Enhancement Themes Website.


More information about QAA’s Student Strategic Advisory Committee is available on our website.