Students’ Union

Challenges of student engagement

Earlier today, I wrote an essay-length comment over at John Peart’s website.

John made a keynote speech at the Quality Strategy Network’s Student Engagement Symposium on 9th December at Ashridge Business School and he kindly published the speech on his blog the next day.

The speech is about the challenges of student engagement in an age where the student population is so diverse, many have to work to supplement their income, and large numbers are part-time or distance learners.  The argument goes that in order to engage a hyper-diverse community, a hyper-diverse approach is required:

“…engaging students is never an easy task, but students’ unions need to continue to challenge themselves. No one method alone with cut it when you’re dealing with a student population that is so diverse.”

If you have time, I suggest you read the entire speech.

photo by Christopher Saccaro

photo by Christopher Saccaro

It’s important stuff, which is why I wrote an essay in response.  And it’s why I’m posting my reply on here too:

My comment on John Peart’s blog

Hyper-diversity is difficult to achieve, despite being necessary. Just as you describe students as having wildly varying needs, different circumstances, must take on jobs, and so on, students’ unions are also isolated from influencing and helping students as much as they’d like to because of their increasing range of commitments.

Can a modern students’ union be truly representative of all students? It can get close. And I agree that officers and volunteers need to be active both online and offline. However, this further stretches them for time.

Your mention of 21% of undergrads feeling uninvolved in shaping their course and 21% of undergrads also wanting to be actively involved is interesting. How easy is it to become actively involved? I wonder how many students who don’t feel involved have tried to involve themselves further (and indeed, had the time to do so effectively). That’s a key issue for students’ unions, who are there to help in instances such as this. And while many unions are stepping up their game each year with great success, I’m still concerned that it’s difficult to make truly dynamic moves with such limited resources.

Many years back, unions could get support and engagement from students and vice versa by “being where the students are”. As you say, something like wallpapering corridors may have brought a good turnout. To an extent, that’s still the case. Trouble is, the students are absolutely everywhere and being bombarded by issues. So how do you spread out in order to reel everyone in to a particular cause, whilst demonstrating that their engagement would benefit them?

Obama’s election campaign worked well through the Web, since he had a strong presence on many services. But this took a lot of money and resources to make happen convincingly. Obama seemed to shock many people recently when he said he’d never used Twitter. But is that really such a surprise? Obama’s web presence must have been almost entirely worked on by other people, unless he’s a comic superhero with the power to stretch time to get everything done so well…

The big challenge in my mind is to help students realise how important it is for them to engage and campaign effectively. But here’s a little story that shows the difficulty of the situation:

When I had the pleasure to meet you a few weeks’ back at the Reading Town Takeover, the first person I spoke to on campus didn’t want to talk to me. I was looking for the students’ union and said “Excuse me?” to someone walking toward me. She kept her head low and pretended not to hear me, but clearly knew I was trying to get her attention.

I carried on by saying, “Sorry, I only want to know where the SU is please.”

She then looked up, smiled, and said, “Oh, you just want directions. Oh right, good, fine.”

After showing me the way, she walked off happy to have helped. I mentioned this later at the SU and was told that it’s no surprise as she’d probably been concerned that I was ‘yet another’ person out campaigning about this cause or that, trying to get her support. I was told the campus can get quite busy with people wanting your attention on all sorts of issues.

So do we increase engagement by being less engaged? Of course not. But this highlights the challenge faced on so many levels.

Still, it’s a challenge worth pursuing.

photo by gnackgnackgnack

photo by gnackgnackgnack

What I wish I knew when I first started university

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Looking back on your past, it’s easy to see how you could have done things differently…and better. But you can’t turn back the clock; you simply learn from your mistakes and embrace the future possibilities (and giving a big fat hug to the here and now).

I didn’t find out some things until after it was too late, or I only got in on the goodness later down the line. Either way, it pays to know as soon as possible.

photo by emilbacik

photo by emilbacik

Because of this, here are just a handful of the things I wish I’d known at the start of my degree. By no means exhaustive, but certainly important points:


NUS Awards 2008 – Winners

The NUS Awards 2008 were held on Monday night, hosted by John Sergeant.

Congratulations to all the winners on the night.  They were, as follows:

Endsleigh Student of the Year

  • Laura Sterling – The University of Birmingham Guild of Students

[Laura is Community Action Officer for Birmingham’s Guild of Students.  She is involved in the activities of students in the local community and reducing any negative feeling associated with students in the area.]

Student Unionist of the Year

  • Tobin Webb – University of Bristol Students’ Union

Tobin Webb

[Tobin (pictured above) is UBU President.  For more information on his role, check this article in Epigram Online, Bristol University’s student paper.]

Course Representative of the Year

  • Thomas Gyr and Timur Jan Pinar – Northumbria Students’ Union

Thomas and Timur win as School Reps for the School of Design at Northumbria.  The Students’ Union explains all the hard work they have done.

Participation Award

As stated on their site:

“The award recognises the fabulous work your Executive Officers and Representatives have done over the past year to increase your participation in the Students’ Union, including: the biggest student elections in the country, reforms to the JCR system, and great plans for a new Student Volunteer Centre to launch in September.”

Campaign of the Year

FE Students’ Union of the Year

One of the judges for this award was Lynne Sedgmore, CEO for the Centre of Excellence in Leadership.  She said of Derby College SU:

The work of Derby College Student Union is clearly outstanding. In particular, the thoroughness, honesty and scope of their impact assessment is exemplary. Their community engagement, international work and student advice centres alongside their online training for course reps, for me was the deciding factor in picking them as the winners.”

HE Students’ Union of the Year

Mark Willoughby - Sheffield

Mark Willoughby (pictured above) is chuffed about this award.  After all, he is President of Sheffield’s Union.  He gives the lowdown here on his blog.

Equality and Diversity Award

Students’ Union Publication of the Year

Student Journalist of the Year

  • Matthew Holehouse (Oxford University Students’ Union)

Student Protests – Are they still on the map?

Do you, as students, take part in any kind of protest? Do you think it makes a difference? How do you see change occuring? What are the major issues that would cause you to get out of your seat and protest?

Passion (student protest) - photo by lewishamdreamer

Today on the Guardian’s Mortarboard Blog, the NUS president, Gemma Tumelty, discusses how students are more politically savvy than ever. While some people believe students are ignoring issues, Tumelty believes that political stands are now taken over “individual issues according to their conscience, rather than falling back on blind partisanship”. I agree that individual issues play a much higher part than concerns of the past, but I don’t think this is as positive as Tumelty does.

And it’s unfair to refer to ‘blind partisanship’, because it suggests an unimaginative coming together just for the sake of it. I think there are simply more causes thrown at us, resulting in a dilution of what matters and what we can cope with. There are only so many hours in the day…

It’s hard to publicise anything as the biggest deal now. People want to judge what’s important for themselves.

So with each year that goes by, a growing number of concerns compete for our attention. University has long been a place where anything is possible, but this overload of possibilities doesn’t allow large scale political protest to take place effectively.

Tumelty does end her piece by suggesting that students still protest in large numbers, but that the protests go beyond students and are attended/used/run by people from all walks of life.

To my mind, this further highlights the dilution within culture. With university taking on greater numbers of 18+ year olds, it’s no wonder that they are no longer the specific group of yesteryear, but a blending part of society that takes a place with all adults in the UK.

It wasn’t that many years ago when student protests over loans and fees were a big deal. Yet it didn’t make the difference hoped by many, and some commentators at the time said it was a huge blow to the effectiveness of student protest. Still, I must admit, such an important topic didn’t stir the emotions of as many people as it should have done. I was there and a lot of students treated it more as an annoyance than as something worthy of protest.  Luckily, there were still plenty who did want to be heard, especially after students felt the government had backtracked on promises that had been given.  Nevertheless, positive results were not particularly forthcoming.

Student Protest - photo by Mr. Babyman

When I was at uni, a large group of us living in halls were involved in a payment dispute that caused a deal of upset. I tried to get a protest going and was in discussion with staff as high up as the Pro-Vice-Chancellors. Despite the clear problem that needed addressing, everyone gave up on the problem after the initial effort was unsuccessful.  I ended up being the ONLY person who wanted to stand up to what was right.

If being upset and losing money are not enough to rile everyone into action, what on earth is!?

I singularly took things as far as getting an admission that things could have been dealt with better, as well as an apology for any upset caused. At this point, nothing had been offered to me, but I was in a good position to demand further action.  So did I?

No, I didn’t.

You see, I loved my uni and I felt that I’d made my point. They had respected me and taken me seriously, which was great.  You might think I was mad to get as far as that, just to draw a line under the whole thing at the last minute.  But it wasn’t of interest to the rest of the students any more.

I had got what I wanted and there was nobody else left with an active complaint.  If we’d all pulled together in protest, we would have felt a strong reason to carry on. But that didn’t happen.

So what exactly is student protest now? Is it protesting about something whilst happening to be a student? Can it involve a single student, a handful of them, or all the students in the land?  Does my experience belong to ‘student protest’?  Do the words ‘student protest’ matter any more if the issues regularly involve society as a whole?

Tumelty refers to the recent Facebook campaign that led to HSBC reversing its decision to charge graduates interest on their overdrafts. But becoming a member of a Facebook group isn’t difficult and doesn’t mean the members necessarily even had an account with HSBC. While I don’t believe the protest led to ‘blind partisanship’, I don’t think it’s sufficient comparison to a hard-hitting student protest of grand proportions. Yes, the students won in the end, which is great news. It also led to major news coverage. But I’m still left pondering over what ‘student protest’ is.

What would you define as ‘student protest‘?

student_protests_in_berlin (photo by holger)