In this interview, we talk to Libby Gill, Student Partnership Development Officer at Robert Gordon University (RGU). They began this post in April 2023, following a range of roles in heritage and education, including as an English language teacher. A graduate of Ayrshire College and the University of Aberdeen, they are also currently studying a Master’s in History of Art with the Open University.
1. Can you start by telling us a bit about your role at RGU – what does it mean to develop partnership on a practical level?
I get to work with a lot of people across the university. I’m based in the Student Life department, but I also work closely with the Students’ Union and academic staff, as well as student representatives. Although I’m still learning, it seems that the most important thing is recognising that every department has different needs and different ways partnership can be applied. What works in one area doesn’t necessarily work in another, so it’s important to always be listening and learning about each new situation. I came in with so many ideas about what we could do, but hearing about what our different Schools have already done for partnership has really opened my mind. I never would have thought of some of the things they have!
Implementing partnership is also about being adaptable and recognising when something isn’t working. We originally planned on launching our new Student Partnership Agreement in September 2023, but we really wouldn’t have had enough time to make it as good as we want it to be, so we decided to push it to January 2024. Now we have the whole semester to talk to staff and students across the university, find out what’s working, what we need to do better, and really do our best work.
It's always a learning experience and I really enjoy finding out more about how partnership works at RGU and how we can make things even better.
2. And reflecting on your various experiences of education, including as a student both past and present, how much do you see the world of education embracing the idea of partnership with learners and students? Do you think it is always achievable?
I first signed up as a course representative in my first year of university in 2015, and continued until I graduated in 2019. It was mostly done informally; we never voted on a rep and there wasn’t any training. The only responsibility I had was to show up to the termly Student-Staff Liaison Committee meetings with feedback, and there wasn’t any guidance on how to collect that feedback from other students. I never even heard the term student partnership, and I couldn’t have told you what it meant.
That was only a few years ago but the approach I see now is so different. There’s a real understanding that students need to be part of these conversations beyond surveys and occasional meetings. I see this in the amount of training there is for course reps, and how reps are increasingly invited to be part of decision-making processes within their schools. We have lead reps at RGU as well as course reps, and they can get really closely involved in how things run with senior staff. I’ve recently heard about them running the Student-Staff Liaison Meetings in one School. Beyond course reps, I think there’s also more understanding that all students should be involved in partnership, not only those formally serving as reps, and I see that reflected in projects across the sector, too.
If we continue this way, I think successful partnership is absolutely achievable for anyone who wants to be involved. The caveat is that the same things aren’t possible for everyone – different courses and institutions have different needs so it will look very different from case to case. But I see no reason why that should mean partnership isn’t possible. The best part of partnership work is that it’s so adaptable, you can apply it to anything.
3. What is your sense of what partnership can bring to decision-making at this time of challenge and change? You’ve been involved in our networks and training since you started at RGU, so what do you think are the important conversations for staff and students at the current time?
I think the most important part of student partnership is understanding that there’s a lot you won’t know until you’re having those conversations. Students, academic staff, and other staff working in partnership have different viewpoints and needs which aren’t always clear at first. So, the most important conversation you can have, for me, is to find out what everyone needs from the partnership. These conversations should be ongoing as circumstances change and new people join, so that we are always learning from each other.
This is especially valuable at a time when so much is changing in the world and within higher education. Problems like the ongoing effects of Covid, the cost-of-living crisis, and increased use of AI are prevalent across all institutions right now. Getting input from a wide range of perspectives is vital to appreciate how people are affected and coming up with solutions together. It’s important to look at the conversations that students are being left out of, and then bring them into it.
In future years, the key issues will be different, but the important conversations will largely be the same: it’s about bringing in a range of voices and ensuring everyone is listened to.
4. You participated in some of our training this summer, and wrote a powerful post on LinkedIn a few weeks ago about how you felt included in our course rep trainers’ training residential as an autistic person, in what can often be an overwhelming training environment. Not that we’re fishing for compliments about our events, but what do you think makes for a partnership space that is inclusive of neurodivergency?
Policy around EDI is a necessary starting point, but I would say it’s the people who make a space fully inclusive. Every place I’ve ever worked or studied at has had policies around inclusivity and diversity, but they often haven’t felt like fully safe spaces for me. The CRT event in August was amazing because everyone was so supportive and considerate, it didn’t feel like they were just tolerating my needs.
Something I’ve found helpful is when things are taken at face value. By this I mean being able to do what I need without being questioned or judged, even if it seems weird to other people. This will often mean challenging our unconscious biases and assumptions about the ‘right’ way of doing things, but it’s worth it when everyone is able to be part of the conversation.
It also helped that I was around other neurodivergent people. I think when we’re able to relate to each other, we feel more comfortable; it’s about knowing you’re not alone. I was able to be more open and authentic because of this, and someone told me that made them feel more seen as a neurodivergent person. The need for diversity and inclusion in partnership is talked about a fair bit, but it’s another thing to experience it. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to contribute so much, so confidently, as I was during that week.
Thanks to Libby 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.