27 Apr 2023

Interview with Manuel João Costa, University of Minho, Portugal

In this interview, we talk to Manuel João Costa, Pro-Rector for Student Affairs and Pedagogical Innovation at the University of Minho (UMinho), in Portugal. With a background in biochemistry, he has been at the University of Minho since 2004. He is involved in various activities in the European higher education sphere, including the European University Association’s Learning and Teaching Steering Committee, the Education Committee of the Federation of European Biochemical Sciences, the Faculty Development Committee of the Association for Medical Education in Europe, and as Institutional Coordinator in the Arqus European University Alliance, which is a collaboration between regionally engaged research universities across Europe.

1. Let’s start with a possibly huge question! What does student engagement look like from a Portuguese perspective, and what does it mean for the activities and ethos of the University of Minho?

A huge question indeed. The Portuguese higher education community is generally positive about taking in students’ vision and voice, and also quite aware of the importance of student engagement in their education to academic success. Formally, there is student representation in the governance of institutions and their academic units. Students make 50% of the education councils of faculties within the Portuguese system. In addition, there is positive cooperation in university governance of student unions which are partners in the creation of more student-friendly educational environments.

UMinho’s ethos is centered on core themes that relate to the student experience, such as student-centeredness of learning and teaching, feeling of belonging to the academic community, and civic and social responsibility. UMinho sees students as active participants in their own learning and development, with a role in shaping the educational experience, and therefore seeks students’ insights and perspectives beyond their formal participation in committees. UMinho and AAUM (UMinho’s students’ association) nurture a relation of trust. UMinho co-constructs many significant activities (for example the welcoming and induction of new students or entrepreneurship development and job fairs). Its academics are well known nationally by their empathic ways to relate to students. The success of UMinho in many initiatives is also the result of a successful engagement of students in many phases of the conceptualization and implementation.

2. You co-wrote a paper in 2018 offering twelve tips for engaging students in medical education contexts. It was interesting to note that creating a culture of student engagement was top of your list. As a university leader, how do you create such a culture?

In the context of your question, “culture” refers to the presence of, among a number of elements, a variety of beliefs, values, and customs within UMinho. I am not sure leaders really can “create” a culture, but rather create the conditions in the academic and educational environments to steer change in some directions. The key point is understanding those environments and developing a collective vision with the academic community about how to enhance the potential to engage students. As a leader, I try to do those by bringing all relevant voices to the discussion, in particular about medium and short term actions to achieve change. A key ingredient in this process is the development of trust amongst all partners participating. I therefore foster open communication, encourage collaboration and seek to be transparent and available to all. Because it is critically important not to reinvent (broken) wheels, I try to keep myself informed about research and best practices in other institutions, nationally and internationally, in the field of student engagement. Lastly, I invest energy in communication of the initiatives and their impact to the UMinho academic community and also beyond, as I believe that communication is key to develop a collective awareness to sustain change.

3. One project you have been working on recently is co-designing a training programme on enhancement of learning and teaching for student reps. Can you tell us a bit about what this involves, and how you have worked with students to develop it?

The ultimate goal of development of learning and teaching is the enhancement of the academic experience of students. Since 2017, we have developed a number of initiatives to support academics to transform teaching to be more digitally enhanced and to become more engaging to students, and have reached a few hundred academics. As the educational environment is being changed, it is clear to us that it is important to develop students’ understanding of why UMinho is steering away from traditional approaches. Increasing student literacy about contemporary learning and teaching is important to conquer their active participation in the process, as we will find better solutions with their collaboration.

I have had discussions for quite some time with students’ union representatives about this, and we share the vision and agree on what needs to be done to enhance learning and teaching at UMinho. Students have participated in the discussions that created the training programs for academics and also as facilitators in some academic training initiatives. When I felt we were ready to take a step to create our training programme, I discussed whether the students also felt that it was time to do it (the first conversation took place in April 2022).

As we agreed on the principle, our colleagues in our learning and teaching team (the IDEA-UMINHO centre) gradually developed a template for the programme, which was discussed with students along the way. We eventually agreed on the content, the length and on the period of the week it was supposed to happen. The programme will consist of four sessions, once a week, two hours each. Sessions will showcase what contemporary engaging education looks like, namely in terms of learning and teaching approaches, technology and artificial intelligence, assessment and inclusion.

We are asking all participants to develop an “advocacy mini-plan” at the end of the programme, a feasible plan that they can apply to their contexts, and are offering student and teacher facilitators to support the design. We also agreed that it would be a programme for student representatives and that it would be an excellent opportunity for them to be aware of international experiences of representatives that advocate for more student engagement. We were really happy that sparqs accepted to take part in one session, sharing the excellent work you are doing in Scotland.

4. You also presented twice at this year’s EUA Learning and Teaching Forum in Bilbao. One of these was in the same session as our colleagues Megan and Simon’s paper, in which you spoke about your university’s co-created student induction programme. What lessons can you share about what makes a good induction, and why it is important to involve students in shaping it?

Support by the university senior leadership was fundamental from the beginning. Taking stock of the lessons to be learned from previous experiences (ideas to improve, positive and negative aspects), hearing from those involved in the process (the students’ union, the services that contributed, leaders at the academic units of the university and those previously responsible) were two critical elements. Our four years of experience with the current model show the value of the co-designing process with all involved, and the power of engaging and sharing responsibility with experienced students or peers in the delivery of the activities.

These ideas are key to the programme ethos and have oriented all discussions and developments - it was important to state and discuss those upfront, since in previous models the planning and delivery were the responsibility of university services and academic units. Another key lesson is that developing trust between student representatives, academic unit deans for education and all services engaged (student support, registrar, digital support, communication) is invaluable. All were welcomed to share views and experiences within a very informal environment. Clearly, everybody wanted new students to feel welcomed and realized the value of transparent conversations on how to do it.

Another important lesson is that students who feel welcomed want to give that feeling back to future new students. We have seen the numbers of students applying to be peer guides in the programme increasing - above 200 students in the most recent iteration. Finally, that a process of maturing of the team is important to go deeper in the aspects that need to be dealt with in the programme. We have maintained the core structure of this group for four years now, and despite the people who have rotated out, a core group carries the essence of the process and the inherent wisdom across academic years.

5. Thinking about the many conversations you are involved in at a European level, where do you think European higher education is going as it emerges from the pandemic, and what do you think student engagement might look like in the future?

I have difficulties with the concept of “European higher education” as institutions are so diverse (there is also huge diversity within institutions) and so subject to unexpected changes caused by disruptions – like the recent pandemic, or the current invasion of Ukraine. The fact that “student engagement” is defined so differently by scholars and is conceptualized also differently across countries and institutions, makes this question really difficult to answer.

Still, on a more conceptual basis, thinking of ideas about student engagement in the future, I believe student engagement will be more pre-eminent (and perhaps clearer) in European policies, and more valued by institutions. Increasingly, I think we will see institutions adopting approaches to engage students as true partners in the development of the academic and educational environments. I am inclined to think, as the population of academics and of students increases in diversity, and as campuses become more deeply transformed digitally, that new and fascinating ways will emerge that will enhance students’ commitment to education and sense of belonging to the academic community. Given the progressive internationalisation and integration of universities in their ecosystems, I am inclined to believe that the more students feel engaged in their institution, the more they will feel engaged with society, and with our global community. Hopefully, engaged students can contribute to the consolidation of key societal values, such as equality, solidarity and humanitarianism.


Thanks to Manuel 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.

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