29 Sep 2023

Interview with Erica Russell-Hensens, Scottish Funding Council

In this interview, we talk to Erica Russell-Hensens, Deputy Director for Student Interests, Access and Pathways at the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). After a sabbatical term of office at (what became) Queen Margaret University, Erica worked for two years at sparqs, and then moved to City University London and then London Business School, leading the delivery of taught post-graduate programmes for almost ten years. During that time, she completed an MBA in Higher Education Management at the Institute for Education, University College London. Erica then returned to Scotland and held senior positions in academic quality at the Universities of Stirling and Dundee. She joined SFC in late 2022, where she is responsible for developing their approach to the protection of Student Interests as outlined in the SFC Review of Coherent Provision & Sustainability. Her portfolio includes the SFC’s own engagement with students, enhancing the student experience, and access, well-being and equalities.

1. When you were a student officer at QMU, Scotland’s Quality Enhancement Framework had just been introduced. What do you remember of that period, and what student engagement felt to you as an undergraduate student and SA officer?

It’s kind of you to think I’d remember this far back!

I got involved at QMU as a course representative initially, in first or second year, and I remember receiving some training from the SU at the time, but sparqs wasn’t in existence yet and the training was very local. That wasn’t a bad thing, however it was missing a broader context.

As a student officer in an institution that was going through a lot of change at the time, my attention was very internally focused. However, I began to get involved with more national activities through the Enhancement Framework and of course when I moved to sparqs it became my bread and butter. So, for me personally, the Quality Enhancement Framework and student engagement was transformative.

When I first started, student engagement felt like a responsibility, it felt important, and it felt pretty difficult. It also felt like an opportunity: to get involved, to change things for the better, to support those who hadn’t been able to do so, to get involved too.

I also recognised the value of it to me personally at the time. For example, I sat in the boardroom as a member of a committee that made significant decisions about an organisation, its staff and students. That was an opportunity that otherwise might not have come to me for several decades.

I also had my first overt experience of being dismissed professionally because I was a woman and young.

But I met some really fantastic people, some of whom have remained friends and mentors throughout my career. This was a foundational experience for me, and one that has shaped the career that’s followed.

2. How would you describe those early years working at sparqs? Tell us about your role, and what impact the agency was able to make.

When I joined sparqs it was two or three years old, and it had a real feel of a start-up. We all had to get involved and pitch in to get the job done, and there was a real sense of camaraderie and fun about the team.

And I remember driving. A lot! When I first joined, I delivered the bulk of the Course Rep Training throughout Scotland. This was before the Associate Trainers were brought on board, and that meant delivering ten sessions a week in our busy periods and travelling across the country, Shetland to Dumfries & Galloway, Fife to Ayr and everywhere in between. It was a brilliant job, meeting so many people across the tertiary sector and seeing the breadth of what was available and where the common challenges were.

There was also a real sense of development. It was the early days of the Enhancement Framework and we worked with the QAA and many others to design, develop and create, and that was fantastic.

Even in those early stages sparqs was respected and involved and advocating for student partnership in a way that couldn’t be seen elsewhere in the UK, or beyond.

3. And what was your sense of student engagement’s evolution over the years after that? In your various roles in Scottish and English universities you must have developed a picture of what worked – and maybe what didn’t!

When I left sparqs I moved to London and started to work at City University London, and I still remember the feeling of having landed in a very different place. I made assumptions about the way students were involved in the leadership of the programmes and the management of the student experience that were ahead of their time. It was a real adjustment, and it helped me to see just how lucky I’d been to be a student in Scotland and have the opportunities that I did to get involved in so many different ways.

Coming back to Scotland and working at the Universities of Stirling and Dundee some ten years later, it was great to see just how involved students, student officers and the Students’ Union were and continued to be. Whilst we had done some great things at London Business School to work with students at a programme level and really engage with them on improving the programme and their experience, there was still work to do at an institutional level. Returning to Scotland I could see how student engagement ran through all institutional levels, and nationally, in a much more progressive way.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. The effectiveness of the partnership can be very cyclical and it’s also not yet universal. We must remember, particularly those of us who have worked in this area for some time, that not everyone understands student engagement or sees the value of a partnership. We need to continue to make the case as to its value and importance. We need to support students and staff to understand our approach here in Scotland, answer their questions, address concerns and bust some myths!

4. Coming up to the present day, what do the current moves to further embed engagement and partnership in Scotland look like from an SFC perspective?

The SFC committed through its 2021 Review and its recent Strategic Plan to protect the interests of students. We believe this can be achieved through a range of activity, including SFC’s own engagement with students and understanding of the student experience, targeted action to remove or mitigate barriers or challenges students face, and through continuing our work to achieve fair access and equality as well as support students’ wellbeing.

Alongside these activities, SFC is leading the development of the Tertiary Quality Framework and that will continue to champion student engagement as the Quality Enhancement Framework did twenty years ago.

I’m hugely excited to see the potential of these commitments realised, and I’m looking forward to once again working the length and breadth of the country with colleagues throughout the tertiary sector, students and graduates, to do so. What the past two decades have shown us is how much can be achieved and I’m sure the next two will do the same again!


Thanks to Erica 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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