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29 May 2020

Students as partners – challenges facing students’ unions throughout COVID-19


Amy Eberlin
Quality Enhancement Specialist, QAA Scotland

Holly Thomas
Quality Enhancement Specialist, QAA Wales

The concept of ‘students as partners’ is central to meaningful student engagement in the Scottish and Welsh higher education sectors, and fundamental to work at QAA. While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major shifts in the student learning experience, from a pivot to digital learning, teaching and assessment to a physical separation from their university communities, it has emphasised the importance of student voice and engagement in institutional and sector-wide decision-making processes. Students’ unions across Scotland and Wales, with support from key sector agencies, have sought to maintain a continuing sense of community and have continued to champion student experience and representation throughout the current crisis.


Students’ unions are facing unknown challenges throughout the current situation. However, they are maintaining their central role as the representative of the student voice and problem-solver of the student community.


In Wales, students’ unions have delivered student-led awards online to remind staff and students of the amazing things they do on a daily basis in their university community. They continue to digest information for students in their institutions and public bodies in addition to providing opportunities to feedback on changes to student life. They have maintained and enhanced their focus on student wellbeing by giving peer-to-peer tips on self-care and advice throughout this unprecedented situation.


In the Welsh capital, students’ unions have collaborated to support students who are living in the private sector with Presidents from four different students’ unions co-signing a letter supporting their students. Other students’ unions have produced templates for students to use to contact landlords about third-term contract releases. Students’ unions continue to work with their institutions and sector bodies, like QAA, to ensure that student voice is effectively represented throughout the ongoing developments and changes to the student experience.


The swift move to digital learning in March 2020 also impacted the processes of student representation at Scottish universities. Scottish higher education institutions and students’ associations/unions have worked closely to ensure that their student communities are not negatively impacted by the current pandemic. Students’ associations/unions also continue to represent student interests in the national political arena, including recent support for the Coronavirus No. 2 Bill.


Many Scottish students’ associations’/unions quickly transitioned to an online delivery of their representative meetings, using their institutional VLE or social media channels. Social media has also been used to promote a continued sense of community among student groups, seeking to create virtual spaces for clubs and societies to thrive during lockdown. Creating virtual versions of end-of-year awards, like student-led teaching awards, societies and sports balls, and student achievement awards, online spaces have been used to facilitate these important markers in the academic year.


As many students’ associations/unions will welcome new sabbatical officer teams in June, it is important that students’ associations/unions and their institutions continue to support the incoming sabbatical officer teams to represent students effectively in the changing learning landscape. As part of QAA Scotland’s Enhancement Theme, Evidence for Enhancement, the Student-led Project developed a series of resources to support students’ use of evidence. The Students’ Guide to Using Evidence provides a set of guidelines and case studies, which demonstrate the importance of students’ effective use of evidence in their representative activities. Its accompanying planner provides a structure within which student representatives, as well as students’ association/union and institutional staff, can plan their student engagement over the coming academic year. The Responding to Student Voice Principles and Cards are an easy to use activity to explore the student perspectives of their learning experience.


In addition to these existing resources, QAA Scotland will host a student panel, as part of its Enhancement Conference, ‘Learning from disruption’, on 3 and 4 June 2020, which will discuss the opportunities and challenges for student representation in a time of significant disruption.


What will a post-COVID-19 higher education sector look like for students’ associations/unions and how might their role change? How will course representatives gather student feedback and will it fundamentally differ from what we have seen before? These are questions that the UK higher education system will have to grapple with in the coming months and years. In answering, we must remember the importance and value of ‘students as partners.’


If you would like to discuss the themes and areas of work explored in this blog post, please contact