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31 August 2021

QAA Evolving Student Engagement Conference blog - Where do we go next? Lessons from a decade of student engagement


Dan Derricott

Head of Academic Policy and Quality Assurance at University College London

Following on from our annual Evolving Student Engagement Conference on 29 and 30 June, we are running a series of blog posts by conference session presenters. In this blog, Dan Derricott, Head of Academic Policy and Quality Assurance at University College London, reflects on a decade since he first entered the world of student engagement as a sabbatical officer and outlines 10 lessons he has learned in that period.

Higher education in the UK finds itself at an interesting intersection. As we reflect on recent changes to the regulatory framework in England, the divergence of higher education policy in the nations and what we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, now is a good time to consider how we use recent changes in the policy landscape to reignite a culture of meaningful student engagement across UK higher education.

Student communities have had to form and sustain themselves differently over the last year and a half and, as we go forward, it’s important that institutions reflect on the concept of student belonging and community and how this can be rebuilt in a very different context. Once again, it's essential that students and students’ unions play a central role in developing and implementing institutional responses to this challenge.

  1. The potential of students continues to be immense; they have so much to contribute. Students continue to add great benefit to all processes in which they are involved, be that quality assurance, governance or anything else.
  2. It’s hard to get students in the room if they don’t see the value, just like anybody else. Getting the most out of students requires actively thinking about how you can best engage them from the start of their course and taking a strategic approach to achieve this.
  3. Staff engagement is a prerequisite to student engagement. Partnership isn’t possible without the engagement of staff - you need to support staff in understanding the value of student engagement and help them to reflect on how they can incorporate this into their own practice.
  4. Staff respond best to their peers, not to processes, guidance and forms. An effective way to build a culture of student engagement involves supporting enthusiastic staff members to share examples of their work and inspire other staff to reflect on their own student engagement practice.
  5. Student engagement is a means to an end, and an end in itself. Staff and students working together collaboratively is an effective means of enhancing quality, but also aids staff and students to develop confidence and a range of new skills through the process of working together in partnership. However, it’s also important to be clear on why you are engaging with students and what outcomes you are seeking so that it is seen as a purposeful activity, and not simply there to tick a box.
  6. Senior-level commitment and a sustained, long-term effort are key ingredients for culture change. Commitment from institutional management is crucial in order to move student engagement beyond being scattered across the institution through pockets of good practice into being embedded within institutional culture.
  7. Developing and delivering a culture of student engagement in partnership with your students’ union works best (but isn’t always comfortable). A strong students’ union is a non-negotiable element of building a culture of student engagement but isn’t always a comfortable process for either party. An organisational partnership between the institution and the students’ union is an essential vehicle for effective student engagement but will require both parties to engage in honest and constructive dialogue.
  8. A robust system of elected student reps is a necessary foundation on which you can build. Opportunities for student engagement work best when they build on a strong system of elected student representation. This allows the outputs of collaborations with non-elected students to be validated by decision-making bodies including elected reps.
  9. National policy makes a difference; this translates into providers. How student engagement is valued through national policy influences the extent to which it is therefore valued by institutions. The diverging nature of higher education policy across the nations is reflected in the priorities of providers within these nations.
  10. We are lucky to have excellent leaders, thinkers and champions in the sector. Bodies like QAA and RAISE (Researching, Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement) continue to stretch our thinking on student engagement.

There are a range of matters to reflect on from the last decade in higher education as well as numerous opportunities that have arisen from the pandemic. Institutions have an opportunity to place students at the heart of driving and implementing the vision for what teaching, learning and assessment looks like into the future.

QAA Members can access the recording and slides from Dan’s presentation, as well as all the other sessions delivered at Evolving Student Engagement via our Membership Resources site. Any staff member or student from a QAA Member institution can access our Membership Resources site by simply completing our registration form.


You can also read a summary of key messages from the Conference on the QAA website.