Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

Enhancing student representation systems


Alex Bols, Deputy CEO has written a blog for wonkhe on ‘Enhancing student representation systems’.

Much has been made in recent years about whether students are consumers or partners in their education and placing students “at the heart of the system”. This has led to increased focus on student engagement and new and different ways of involving students. The agenda has resulted in projects such as the Student Fellowship Schemes, Students as Change Agents and Student-Led Teaching Awards. Today GuildHE launches a new report on student engagement, in collaboration with the Student Engagement Partnership.

It is interesting to focus on new ways of working but it is also important to recognise that within most institutions lie student representation systems such as course reps, that are still the bedrock of student engagement. As part of my doctorate I have been looking at the effectiveness of student representation, interviewing participants from students’ unions and NUS, and whilst this is at an early stage, there have already been some interesting emerging findings which I will test in the next stage with other students’ unions, academics and university managers.

One of the themes that began to surface during the interviews – echoing the CHERI report (Little et al, 2009) – was a sense that there is a mismatch between what students’ unions and institutions believe the purpose of a student representation system is. There was a perception that some institutions are almost “co-opting” student reps into their quality assurance system to support a “performance culture” whereas students’ unions, whilst recognising the importance of this, also see an enhanced role for reps around driving education change. This raises questions about how to develop a shared understanding of the purpose of representation systems between the institution and the students’ union.

Emerging behaviours

During my research interviewees highlighted the role that training has played in enhancing the effectiveness of representation systems but also hinted at a lack of clarity about the role of representatives. There isn’t currently a shared competency framework for reps and it was suggested that it might be desirable to develop a set of behaviours and expectations of what it means to be a representative as a shared starting point for discussion and for more development of support.

During the interviews a number of potential behaviours emerged that could be tested further and refined in the next phase of the research. Below are some of the behaviours that were suggested that could enable course reps to have a clearer idea of their role.

  • Chameleonic – the idea that reps need to be able to speak to the “university management speak” so that they will be listened to more by the institution, but also be able to switch back and be able to relate to ordinary students and speak about education in an engaging way. It was suggested that this might also help mitigate against the feeling that the rep has been co-opted or “gone native”. 
  • Communications – in addition to be able to speak in different ways to different audiences, good communications is key to the role. In particular ensuring that students know what the rep is doing, but also given the privileged position of rep having more information about what is going on the in the department they can act as a conduit of information from the institution when appropriate.
  • Policy actors – a strong theme that came out from the interviewees was that reps are not simply there to be vessels of other people’s views. It is not their role to simply re-present data and views of students, but rather to digest this information and use it to identify priorities, they are not simply “ventriloquists”.
  • Internal externality – this idea that the representative is a useful source of feedback for the institution, acting as a critical friend, able to give helpful advice but on occasion to say the uncomfortable thing that an institution may not wish to say out loud.

The full blog as first published on wonkhe can be viewed here.