In this interview we talk to Dougie Smith, Students’ Association Liaison Officer at City of Glasgow College. After squeezing out as much time as a university student as possible (eight years), he taught History and Modern Studies in secondary schools, worked previously as a Student Engagement Officer at the college, and returned to work in the Students’ Association after a stint at Glasgow Caledonian University SA. In his spare time he likes walking, watching American sports and exploring the delights of red wine and malt whisky – sometimes together. He was once struck by lightning.
1. What does the phrase “student engagement” mean to you, especially in the context of such a large, multi-campus college?
Student Engagement to me means actively listening to what students have to say, recognising their role as experts on their learning and acting on the suggestions that they make. It works when academic staff, support staff and student representatives all have an understanding of the concept of engagement and how they fit in to the engagement structures of the institution (and beyond).
In a college the size of City of Glasgow College, I think communication and culture are essential – we can’t be everywhere, all the time, ensuring students are listened to; we need to help create a culture where that’s the case and trust it to happen. We also need to use digital platforms to communicate the methods, outcomes and successes of student partnerships.
2. So how do you create that culture, and how can all staff and student reps develop an understanding of student engagement? Given the size diversity of both your staff and student profiles, there must be an enormous range of perspectives and experiences – though perhaps that’s a strength as much as a weakness?
There are challenges in such a large college, and it’s definitely a process rather than an event. I think it’s about (informally and not explicitly) creating ‘champions’ of student engagement, making sure they understand its nature and helping enable the channels for them to ‘spread the word’ and share their ideas with others. This needs to happen with both staff and students and be an ongoing process – you’re right about the number of perspectives and there’s always a point of view you haven’t heard yet or an idea that has just occurred to someone – a healthy culture of student engagement provides opportunities for those opinions and ideas to be expressed at any time and in lots of different ways.
3. At last year’s NUS Scotland Awards, you were joint winner of the staff award. What did this award mean to you, and what advice would you give to other students’ association staff members supporting student engagement?
It was particularly pleasing because the award nomination was written by our student officers. We were nominated for 3 NUS Scotland awards and one NUS UK award and it was great to see the hard work of the students’ association recognised at that level.
In terms of advice, I think the keys are to identify some key staff allies in the institution – both academic and support staff - use the help available from sparqs and NUS, and get buy-in from senior management by the student officers raising issues of student engagement at boards and committees.
4. You have a background in school teaching, and we know that student engagement and the idea of the pupil voice is becoming stronger in secondary schools. What do you think the college sector could learn from, or share with, the schools sector?
I think an important lesson that colleges can learn from schools on student engagement is to keep it simple. Sometimes there’s a tendency to over-complicate the process of engagement, have many levels that feed in at different points and don’t talk to each other. In schools the pupil voice is a simpler process – the school asking what they think, what ideas they have for improvement and then working together to make the agreed changes.
5. And thinking about your time at Glasgow Caledonian University SA, are there also things that universities and colleges can learn from each other on student engagement?
I think that many aspects of student engagement are more embedded and recognised at universities and that means there is much colleges can learn from that experience, particularly around how best to utilise elected students and how to evidence the impact of effective student engagement.
On the other side, I think – because the systems are sometimes less embedded at colleges – there is more scope for embracing new ideas. Personally, I would feel more able to try something new and see how it works out, or completely overhaul a system at a college than I would at a university.
Thanks to Dougie for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.
This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.