Students' Associations exist to represent students’ views and improve the experience of students. The main way they do this is through elected Student Representatives (or ‘Reps’), who gather views about various aspects of student life. They communicate this feedback to staff members, suggest solutions, and work together with staff to bring about change.
We began this strand of the project with an informal focus group meeting. This involved PGR student reps and student association staff from across the sector. The following is a summary of the findings.
Most institutions have a ‘pyramidal’ representative structure: a high number of class reps, a smaller number of subject / department reps, a smaller still number of faculty/college reps, and a very small number of reps at institutional level.
However, there is enormous diversity in every aspect of these structures:
- Whether the structure is located in the institution, the students' association, or both
- How many reps there are, and at what levels
- How many students they represent
- Their titles
- How they come by their roles (election or selection)
- How they are expected to fulfil their roles, in terms of being visible / contactable by their constituents
- Their recognition / pay.
The nature of PGR students' relationships with both their institution and its students' association is different from that of other students. They are more likely to view institutional staff as colleagues. This leads to a complex dynamic, and may discourage them from raising issues.
Suggestions for development
Any representative structure should reflect that the PGR student experience is very individual. We know that some PGRs have a closer working relationship in some disciplines more than in others (for example, in lab-based subjects). This does not mean
that there should not be some consistency.
Information sharing is key to making positive change. PGR reps would value the opportunity to meet with their peers at other institutions, but the diversity of structures and roles makes it difficult to identify relevant individuals, or to get a sense of the national picture. This is an obstacle to organisations like QAA Scotland, sparqs (student partnerships in quality) and the National Union of Students Scotland who wish to offer support.
Institutions AND students’ associations can strengthen PGR representation by:
- Considering how they might have a closer working relationship.
- Developing policies to ensure that support is available to individual reps in their role. This might include ensuring that staff understand the role, briefing reps about meetings they should attend, and supporting reps who wish to organise events.
- Ensuring that general communication with the PGR community is clear and engaging and that it involves PGR reps.
- Hosting social events.
- Ensuring that activities aimed at PGR students, does not mean, they shouldn't engage with the wider student body.
Institutions can strengthen PGR representation by:
- Introducing accreditation or pay for PGR reps. This might involve including PGR representation in professional development requirements, or offering relevant training that will be of value in the student's later career.
- Ensuring that PGR reps know about changes that have taken place in response to student feedback (‘you said, we did').
- Developing the PGR community, and the research community more generally.
Students’ associations can strengthen PGR representation by:
- Introducing a PGR post on Executive Committees or similar.
- Considering how to make the democratic process more accessible. This might involve holding representative meetings at different times, or using online 'suggestion boxes' for policy and discussion items.