In this interview, we talk to Kirsten Koss, who has just finished a part-time sabbatical as Depute President of North East Scotland College (NESCol) Students’ Association, where she led the SA’s representation at its Aberdeen City and Altens campuses and served on the college’s board of management. She leaves NESCol with an HND in social sciences and will progress next academic year to study history and politics at the University of Aberdeen. She has also been appointed as a sparqs Associate Trainer for 2022-23.
1. Tell us a bit about your journey in education so far, and what got you into student representation?
I left school in 2016 having had a very poor experience of secondary school, and with very little idea of what I wanted to do with my life. Instead of going to college or university, I decided to work full-time instead, and worked firstly in a restaurant and then at a supermarket. I always knew that I wanted to go back to education, I just didn’t know when, and in 2019 I finally decided to return to education. After a disheartening experience in school, I knew I’d have to redo some of my Highers in order to get into teaching, which was my intended career path at the start of my journey at NESCol, and so I started as a part-time student studying English and Maths, whilst working two jobs. As soon as I restarted my education, I was immediately hooked and I knew I wanted to continue. In 2020, I applied to study HND Social Sciences in order to fulfil my love of politics – or at least to satisfy my need to question things! I knew from the minute that I started my HND that I wanted to get involved in the students’ association and I put my name forward for class rep as soon as I could – and I was happily uncontested. I loved being a class rep, particularly during the covid pandemic when I had to try lots of different ways to engage the students in my class – none of whom I’d met. I loved the challenge and it made me aware of some of the issues impacting my classmates that I knew I couldn’t fix as a class rep – it was this desire to help people and to make a difference which led me to nominate myself to be the Students’ Association Depute President at NESCol SA and I can honestly say it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
2. What was studying and being a student representative like during the pandemic?
To be honest, in terms of my studies, I have flourished in a blended learning atmosphere. Anyone who knows me, knows that I could speak for Scotland and so learning from home really helped me to concentrate on my studies. I wouldn’t say it’s been wholly positive though, it’s definitely impacted me socially and I would have liked to have stronger social relationships with my classmates.
As a class rep, it was much easier because you were communicating with a small group and it was easier to make sure everyone’s voice was heard and that nobody was left behind. In terms of my work, it’s been really challenging to work online as a students’ association officer. By the time I was elected in May 2021, students had already been learning and living online for more than a year – and some had never stepped foot on campus. Digital fatigue definitely had an impact on how much we were able to do. Before restrictions lifted, we learned a lot of tough lessons about the types of activities we were offering online and this really helped us to offer relevant and interesting events instead. However, we were able to have some successes, such as delivering introductory talks about the work of the students’ association almost wholly online, increasing the number of talks we conducted from 7 to 157, which represents a significant number of students. The lifting of restrictions really helped and this meant we were able to speak with students and engage with students face-to-face, which really helped improve our engagement – and it meant we were able to get our new mascot Steven the Seagull out and about!
3. How vital would you say students’ associations are to colleges? And did the pandemic change the association’s role or importance?
I would answer this simply by saying I don’t think we can provide first class education without listening to the voice of the students. I think students’ associations are a vital part of evaluating colleges, and the further development of colleges. Students’ associations are involved in all areas of college decision making, including academic improvement, but they’re also a key part of embedding a community culture in their respective colleges. Students’ associations have become even more vital during the pandemic as the representative body working in the interests of the students and ensuring the student voice was heard at every opportunity. Our association was involved in shaping every announcement surrounding restrictions and we certainly did our best to work around them too. We tried to organise events and activities to maintain the NESCol community whilst also adhering to college and Scottish Government restrictions. The pandemic changed the way we all work, but it made the role of students’ associations an even more key way of making sure the student voice is heard.
4. It’s been ten years since college regionalisation, which of course led to the creation of NESCol out of Aberdeen College and Banff and Buchan College. Earlier this month you were at the Scottish Parliament, with other students’ association staff and officers, giving evidence to the Education, Children and Young People Committee’s investigation into the impact of regionalisation. Can you tell us what happened there, and what sorts of things you told the committee?
I was delighted to be invited along to the Scottish Parliament to discuss regionalisation because I think it’s had a significant impact on college education in Scotland and that impact looks very different in each part of the country. We were given the option of attending online or in person and of course I chose the in-person option, and this took place in the Robert Burns room at the Scottish Parliament. The committee took a roundtable format and I attended alongside other staff members and officers from across Scotland. The panel asked us a number of questions about the impact of regionalisation. I spoke about the impact of regionalisation in the North East of Scotland, and how each of our campuses have very different needs, which makes it very difficult to form a whole college culture, despite NESCol’s best efforts. Additionally, I discussed the impact of the recent flat cash settlement to colleges for the next few academic years and how this will impact on the services that NESCol is able to offer. I voiced concern about how this will be likely to cut lecturing staff numbers which are already very lean following regionalisation. I also spoke about how this will impact on support services which the college are able to offer, some of which are already being funded by soon-to-be discontinued SFC grants. I expressed my concern for colleges going forward, and my worry that much of the positive work achieved since regionalisation will be lost following the college budgets. Furthermore, I spoke about how colleges are losing students due to the cost of living crisis, which I suggested was exacerbated by stagnant bursaries and SAAS funding.
5. Looking ahead, you move after the summer from college to university, so will begin to see the learning experience from perhaps some different angles, and of course we are thrilled you are joining sparqs as an Associate Trainer! As we emerge from the pandemic what do you think course representatives and students’ associations can do to enhance the learning experience in this coming crucial year?
I believe that the next year is pivotal and I think we’ve learnt a great deal from the pandemic and also about better ways of delivering learning, teaching and support services as a result of working online. I think students’ associations have learned that our institutions can support students who want to learn at home, whilst also supporting those who want to have a traditional, on-campus experience, and I think we have a key role in ensuring that this is happening moving forward. I think student representatives also have a key role in ensuring that their institutions provide more support to students who may not be as familiar with the virtual learning environments and online work that we do. I think we’ve also learned that we’re experiencing a “digital fatigue” where students want to move away from online events and I think students’ associations have learned that our events work best when they’re on campus and they’re at the heart of the college. We’ve learned that one of our key roles is solidifying campus culture and making sure we’re helping to organise events and activities which make our students feel as if they’re a part of something more than just a course. Finally, I think students’ associations have a key role in supporting students to remain in education during the cost of living crisis, and making sure that they’re financially supported to do so.
Thanks to Kirsten 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.