15 Apr 2024

Interview with Professor Alastair Robertson, Glasgow Caledonian University

In this interview, we talk to Professor Alastair Robertson, Director of the Graduate School at Glasgow Caledonian University. He was until recently Pro Vice Chancellor for Learning and Teaching at GCU and has 30 years’ experience working in the HE sector, having previously worked at Abertay University, the Higher Education Academy (now Advance HE) and QAA Scotland, He is chair of the Scottish Higher Education Enhancement Committee and a member of sparqs’ University Advisory Group among many other sector involvements.

1. Can we start by taking you back in time? In 2023, the Scottish sector celebrated twenty years of the Quality Enhancement Framework in higher education and the Enhancement Themes, and sparqs celebrated its own twentieth birthday. But you were around when those early steps were being taken. What do you recall about the conversations about student engagement at the time, and what the sector was trying to create?

Thanks, in some ways I cannot believe it is 20 years since the launch of Scotland’s Quality Enhancement Framework but in other ways the context has changed significantly. Going back to those early days, I would say that a lot of the discussions were focused on building capacity in the sector around effective student representation and participation in academic quality processes. At that time, the sector had reached a level of maturity in terms of quality assurance and was engendering a culture of enhancement and collaboration. Student participation was one of the original pillars of the Quality Enhancement Framework as the founding partners (Universities Scotland, SFC, QAA and NUS Scotland) all recognised the value and importance of the student voice in enhancing their learning experience, both within institutions and contributing to national policy development.

2. Working in universities in recent years, what does student engagement look and feel like now? Do you think it is where the sector twenty years ago imagined it would be?

I would say that students’ engagement in their own learning has been a constant throughout but in terms of partnership working we have evolved from notions of participation and collaboration to a much more equal partnership and co-design. The sparqs student partnership staircase (2018) outlines four stages: information provider, actor, expert and partner and I would say that although all four of these stages were relevant for many years in the Scottish sector, the emphasis in recent years has been much more towards “expert” and “partner”, whereas in the past the emphasis was more likely to have been around “information provider” and “actor”. Do I think the sector twenty years ago had such a vision, I think the answer is yes, definitely! At the time, Scotland’s Quality Enhancement Framework was world-leading and the fact that the principles have fundamentally been retained twenty years later, given all of the changes in the sector and society more widely, is testament to the partners’ original vision.

3. You’ve recently published Glasgow Caledonian University’s latest Student Partnership Agreement. Tell us about what it’s like to develop an SPA, what you gain from having an one, and a sense of those partnership conversations about enhancement of learning.

I found the review and co-creation of GCU’s revised Student Partnership Agreement to be a highlight of my time at the University, so far. GCU is a values-led organisation and its mission as the University for the Common Good is strongly embedded within its culture amongst both students and staff. I chaired our SPA working group which included equal membership of University and student representatives. The approach we took was one of co-creation, where everyone’s voice was equal; it was a terrific example of partnership in action. During the consultation process with students and staff we also gathered numerous examples of existing student partnership across the University and our new SPA website highlights many of these, categorised under the four SPA principles. In summary, we believe that through partnership we have a shared responsibility to:

  1. Ensure all members of our University’s community feel a strong sense of belonging;
  2. Enhance our high quality learning, teaching and research;
  3. Enrich our wider student experience;
  4. Enact positive change in our communities for the Common Good.

The intention is that the web pages and examples of practice will be a living document as practices continue to evolve and everyone in the University has been invited to contribute. We recently had a joint University-Student Association signing ceremony to formally launch the SPA and have been publicising the new agreement through our social media and associated campaigns.

4. You’ve had a long involvement with sparqs’ work, supporting many of our projects and being a long-standing member of our University Advisory Group and Joint Advisory Group. At the risk of just making you say nice things about us, what have you enjoyed about working with sparqs, and how do you feel that you and other colleagues are able to shape and inform what we do?

sparqs has been and continues to be a world-leader in student engagement. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to watch sparqs flourish over the years. For me, it offers a number of strengths; it is an independent champion for student partnership and engagement that spans both the college and university sectors, it has made significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge around student partnership through a combination of both theory and practice. It is also a listening organisation that is responsive to the needs and priorities of the sector. I have really valued its governance arrangements and the opportunities it provides the sector to influence and contribute to its work and support to colleges and universities.

5. You’ve been involved in recent sparqs’ strategic planning days, along with colleagues from across the sector. What’s your sense of the current and near future challenges for student engagement, as we move out of the pandemic and into a still-turbulent period? What might engagement and partnership look like in a few years’ time and how can institutions, students’ associations and agencies prepare for that?

At the time of writing we are in a time of significant change. The new Scottish Tertiary Quality Enhancement Framework (TQEF) has been launched but many of the details for its implementation, including external review methodology, are still being finalised. I think the relationship between funders, institutions and students will be broadly the same; there is a recognition and desire to retain an enhancement-led approach to quality in Scottish higher education that is owned by the sector. However, that is not to say that there will not be change. Coming out of the pandemic, we have experienced challenges around students’ preparedness for study, expectations and behaviours and, of course, exponential advances in artificial intelligence. There are also significant challenges in terms of sector funding; international student numbers in Scotland rose significantly during the pandemic and have been dropping significantly over the last 12 months driven by factors outwith the sector’s control. We have also seen a significant rise in the proportion of students with declared disabilities and complex support needs. The full extent of impact of these factors will take several years to be felt, however, inclusive pedagogies, optimising the blend of the right learning technologies, authentic assessment and embracing the opportunities afforded by AI, are key, in my mind, to help all our students to maximise their potential. Further, I believe that the principles of student engagement and partnership working are firmly embedded in the DNA of our sector. This must and will continue.

Thanks to Alastair 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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