In this interview, we talk to Anne Campbell, Vice-Principal (Curriculum) at Ayrshire College. She has worked in the college sector for over 20 years and has occupied various learning and teaching positions throughout her career. Before joining Ayrshire College, Anne was Assistant Principal at West College Scotland, where she was actively involved with Inverclyde Chamber of Commerce as Vice-President. Anne is the Chair of the College Development Network’s Care Strategy Steering group and represents the sector on the Early Learning and Childcare Workforce Board. She also represents the college sector on SQA’s National Qualifications 2022 Group. Locally, Anne is Vice-Chair of East Ayrshire Council’s Economy and Skills Group, a member of the South Ayrshire Council Community Planning Partnership and, alongside SDS and UWS, leads the Skills workstream of the Ayrshire Regional Economic Partnership.
1. How would you define student engagement? And how have you seen the term change over your career?
I define student engagement as our students being at the very heart of everything we do at the College. All staff view students as equal partners, and their thoughts, opinions and recommendations are valued and shape the strategic direction of the College and its governance. They actively contribute, provide feedback and co-create the delivery of all services within and across the College – not simply in the most obvious areas of learning, teaching and services to support learning and teaching.
In my twenty-plus years in the College sector, student engagement has changed, quite rightly, in an enormous way. In the early days of my career, students would rarely be at the decision-making table. Their thoughts and opinions were mostly contained to an end of unit questionnaire or a brief five-minute attendance at a course team meeting. Thankfully, we have realised that our students are our most valuable asset, and we ignore their views at our peril. Student involvement in the college sector has evolved from tokenistic attendance at meetings to shaping the agenda and its outputs.
2. Why do you think there has been that shift and that realisation? Can you think of any moments in your career where you saw it happen?
I think there was a realisation that our students offer really insightful perspectives and solutions. I can remember that I began to see a change a few years before college regionalisation. Since 2013, I would say that there was a major shift and we involved students in creating new policies and process for the new organisations. At Ayrshire, I can’t think of an occasion, nowadays, where students wouldn’t be involved, in some shape or form, around decision making.
3. The pandemic has obviously impacted heavily on curriculum and engagement, especially with a number of national changes on the horizon in Scotland. What have students and students’ associations brought to conversations about the situation we find ourselves in today?
The pandemic has had an enormous impact on us all and has fundamentally changed the way that colleges operate forever. Students and students’ associations have been integral partners at all stages of this journey. From the early days of jointly communicating the uncertainty, to mapping a slow and gradual return to campus (several times over!), their lived experiences of the pandemic have informed and moulded the practicalities of returning to campus and what the future may look like.
4. That’s a really powerful point about the link between students’ lived experiences and decision-making, especially given the difficulties of time pressures, skills or confidence that students have faced in the pandemic. Are there any examples from Ayrshire College where you have made that link successfully?
I recently joined a class with our HND Applied Sport and Exercise group. Some students were physically in the classroom and some students joined from home. They designed this approach with their lecturer and were able to tell me about the benefits that they had gained from this approach. Benefits included less travel time and cost; directly removing at least an inconvenience and perhaps a barrier for some students. They said that it was easier to deal with parenting/caring responsibilities with a teaching day that doesn’t impede these duties at either end of the day. Many students work and this model allows them to commit to evening shifts without impeding on college work – in reality some will miss a whole afternoon lesson to be at work by 3.30pm. Two students were also ill, but were able to join from home, therefore not missing out on valuable class time.
5. And what do you think are the challenges and opportunities for effective student engagement in the near future?
The shared experience of the pandemic has provided a fantastic opportunity to jointly reflect and to genuinely provide flexibility and personalisation in curriculum design, delivery, and services to support students. What was thought of as impossible two years ago is now a reality and, together, we must build on these opportunities for continued improvement, flexibility and inclusion.
The challenge is to continue to improve on partnership working in a hybrid way. We are, however, all learning to work in this new way and together we will deliver a college experience that supports and inspires everyone.
6. So what is your advice to students, reps and SAs to meet that challenge? What do you, as a college leader, want them to bring to conversations about, for instance, curriculum design?
Hybrid working is new for us all and we need everyone’s thoughts, opinions and experiences to be brought to the table in order to find the right solutions to benefit our students now and in the future. You have a major opportunity to take the very best of what we have all learned and apply it to the new world. Be at the table and shape the decisions!
Thanks to Anne 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.