In this interview, we talk to Sofia Khan, Access and Participation Coordinator at University of Strathclyde Students’ Association. She has been in her current post since January 2020, in which she delivers the students’ association’s support to a range of Widening Access (WA) students. She has a diverse career background including the arts, teaching and widening participation in education.
1. You have the distinction of, to our knowledge, a unique role as the only dedicated WA practitioner in a Scottish students’ association. Firstly, what is the value of students’ associations for widening access work, given everything that institutions are already doing in this area?
This is a great question, and is something which forms the basis of all the Widening Access work we do at Strathclyde Student Union; if we already have a strong Widening Access department at the University, why do we need a WA presence in the SU? And the answer really lies in how we value the student experience and what we think are the most important elements of attending university. And so, whilst much of the current work in the WA area is about getting in and staying in, mostly through the lens of academic achievement and equity, there is this whole other area, the student experience, which can often be very different for WA students. We know that such students typically engage with their SU less, either because they view the SU as not for them, because they haven’t the time their more affluent peers may have, or because due to their restricted finances they simply can’t afford to pay some of the joining fees and equipment costs associated with a certain society.
Consequently, there is this huge area of the university experience that our most vulnerable students are being excluded from. And this has a knock-on effect on students’ sense of belonging, their connection with their institution, even their ability to network in preparation for life after graduation. All these intangible elements which contribute to the value of the university experience and that those already engaged may take for granted.
As an institution which is committed to representing and serving all its students, WA work at a student union level is imperative.
2. And what does student engagement mean to you, from a widening access perspective and in the context of the student groups you work with?
There are multiple levels and markers for engagement, depending on students’ needs. For some it’s about seeing a message which resonates with them, for others it’s accessing an event they’d like to attend, for some it may be speaking up at drop-in sessions to share ideas on how the SU could improve its support, for others it may be being present at such events and hearing their story mirrored back at them. For me, the most satisfying engagements are those which grow along the way. One student in particular began her engagement with the, then newly formed, Care Experienced and Estranged Society with her camera off and mostly listening to conversations taking place, the next event her camera was on and she was sharing her story and actively taking part in the activity, for the next event she had volunteered to co-run it and signed up to our peer support programme as a mentor. And now, a year later, she is our new Care Experienced and Estranged Society President. Engagement in this area is about relationship building and trust, and to see those things grow over time is incredibly rewarding.
3. What projects or achievements are you particularly keen to share from your work so far at Strathclyde Union?
There are so many projects that I’ve developed since coming into post which are important. We have a suite of projects and societies which focus on peer connection and socialising, funding pots designed to empower students wishing to give back and design their own WA interventions; and we have other projects which seek to push our work beyond the walls of our own institution, and affect change in a larger way. Each project is important and serves a different section of our WA community, but what is so incredibly humbling for me and something I’m most proud of, is to witness the sheer level of enthusiasm from WA students looking to make things better for those who come after them. It’s genuinely one of the nicest parts of my job and, to me, really shows the importance in creating those relationships with WA students, and the power of the lived experience in affecting change. I think it’s another important reason why more WA practitioners should be tapping into the SU; there is a plethora of lived experience and knowledge just waiting to be utilised, and so many people willing to do something to make the path easier and clearer than when they walked it.
One of our projects that does just that is our Care Experience and Estranged Peer Support Network. Originally set up to support City of Glasgow College Students’ Association to create a Care Experienced Society, the project grew into what is now a multi-organisational support programme, linking our care experienced and/or estranged ‘mentors’ with a CE/E student from one of our five partner colleges. Matches are made based on interests, be those academic or otherwise, and mentors act as a ‘big brother or sister’, offering peer support based on their own experiences in applying to university, including key stumbling blocks for those with experience of care or estrangement.
Another project I’m incredibly proud of is in our work with Stand Alone, a charity that supports estranged young people in many areas of their life, including education. The University of Strathclyde was the first Scottish institution to sign the Stand Alone Pledge in 2016, committing the University to providing support for estranged students year on year. However, there was no such commitment at SU level, and so I spent the tail end of 2020 working with Stand Alone and a few other SUs to consult on the formation of what has now been entitled, Manifesto for Change. Strathclyde Union had the honour of being the first SU to sign up to the manifesto, solidifying the work we are doing in this area.
4. And what advice would you give to widening access practitioners in institutions about working with their students’ association?
Students’ unions and associations have remained largely untouched in the work of WA practitioners, and it’s a shame because the opportunities are endless. You have an organisation purposefully built to serve its students, in a structure which is very open to change and new ways of working. Those two things make developing WA work with SUs very fruitful. You also have the energy and enthusiasm of so many individuals spurred on by their own experiences, positive or negative, to enact change.
With WA work at SU level being in its infancy, there is so much potential for collaboration.
5. Finally, the opposite question – what is your advice to students’ associations on how to work with institutional widening access teams – especially if they have not worked much with them before?
As I mentioned before, relationship building is so important, so establishing that link with your institutional WA department is incredibly helpful. For me, a part of that was already inbuilt as the Head of Access, Equality and Inclusion had been on the interview panel for my role. That was also helpful in gaining me access to other members of the WA team and really plugging into all the WA-related work which was already occurring. So, if you are developing an SU-level Access and Participation Coordinator role, consult the WA team and get their buy-in from the start.
Once you’ve learned what currently exists, it’s important to work out what you can do to supplement that work. Crucially, WA work within an SU is not about replicating or replacing what the institutional WA department are doing - you’re never going to make friends that way. Rather, it’s about how both parties, who have very different strengths and resources, can work together to make the WA offering, as a whole, more effective at your institution.
An important element of that is getting your own house in order first, and that goes back to the idea of valuing the student experience; where does the SU fall short for WA students and how do we address that? It’s in this area of work, where no one has tried to solve the problem yet, you’ll find the most fruitful interventions. Moreover, by focusing your attention there, you are also creating a neutral ground for WA work. You’re not stepping on toes by taking over areas already assigned to the institution’s WA team. I find, in these instances, a clear demarcation of remit and responsibility crucial in ensuring a good relationship between both teams.
Thanks to Sofia 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.