The second interview in our new series of interviews with student engagement practitioners, is with Ondrej Hajda, Director of Representation at the University of St Andrews Students’ Association for academic year 2014-15.
1: You’ve just taken up office as Director of Representation at the University of St Andrews Students’ Association. Tell us a little about the role.
The Director of Representation is one of our four sabbatical officers, primarily responsible for representing the student voice to the University and leading Students’ Association projects relating to education, equal opportunities, student wellbeing, and democracy. The post is also a trustee of both the Students’ Association and a member of the Court of the University of St Andrews.
2: That sounds like a huge role, but obviously we are particularly interested in the education side of things. Tell us more about what is involved there.
I am the ultimate student representative to major University committees related to academic affairs (e.g. Learning & Teaching Committee, Academic Monitoring Group, Curriculum Approval Group). I also train and support our School Presidents and Class Reps who are in the core of academic representation here in St Andrews. For the first time, we are also formalising postgraduate academic representation across all Schools and provide a postgraduate-specific training for our Postgraduate Reps. Another big project for all of us is a preparation for the ELIR that is due to take place in February and March 2015.
3: Do you have any other priorities for your year of office?
Yes. I’m aiming to increase the provision and quality of study spaces across the town. Our Main Library has a capacity of around 1,000 and is absolutely packed 10am-5pm during weekdays and on Sundays. Also, I hope to introduce an Inclusive Learning Policy in St Andrews (based on The University of Edinburgh’s model) that would mainstream special arrangements for students with disabilities in L&T (e.g. lecture slides and difficult names and formulas in advance, audio recording of lectures, reading lists available before the start of the term). And I will be working on developing a volunteer recognition scheme for the Students’ Association, which would draw upon HEAR.
4: What drives your aims for the year? Obviously you will have been a student yourself prior to being a sabbatical and so will have a clear perspective on the learning experience. But also you have the “eyes and ears”, so to speak, of other representatives. How will you communicate with and learn from them?
I was actively involved in student representation prior being elected as Director of Representation. I was a Class Rep and then an Education Officer in our Students’ Association so I have already worked closely with our School Presidents and other elected representatives on improving the learning experience. In the past year, we ran two big surveys with our academic reps that helped me with figuring out priorities for the year ahead. One focused on the library and learning resources, and the second one focused on how students study and what they need for effective studying (top responses were a large desk with a power socket in a quiet area).
Moreover, I have regular meetings with our School Presidents, who in turn have regular meetings with Class Reps in their School. There is a lot of communication and cooperation going on already, but we definitely need to do more about closing the feedback loop and I am hoping to launch a representation newsletter this year to help out with that.
5. Briefly, you mentioned that St Andrews will have an ELIR review later this academic year. How do you see your role in this, and what are your expectations of the process?
ELIR is about enhancing the learning and teaching experience at universities so I want to make sure that we make the most out of it. I believe it is important to provide as much student input as possible on the Reflective Analysis and during the February and March visits. We can’t just praise the University for what it is doing right, but we also need to flag up issues that need further work and offer potential solutions from us as students. We are very lucky because the University was so far very responsive to student-led efforts to improve learning and teaching and I hope this trend will continue.
6. Finally, you’re originally from the Czech Republic. What perspective on the Scottish sector does this bring you? What are the most fundamental differences between Scotland and the Czech Republic in terms of universities or student engagement?
I have never attended a university back at home so it is very hard for me to compare anything, but it seems to me that that the system of student (not just academic) representation is much better developed in Scotland. I think it goes back to the fact that in Scotland universities place much more emphasis on developing the whole student and actively support student engagement with their learning process. I also cannot think of a similar agency like sparqs that would exist in the Czech Republic and help students shape learning and teaching at their institutions.
But it’s not just my home country I can compare Scotland and St Andrews to. Whenever I travel to a different town/city/country, I like to visit the university there and talk to student representatives there to make contacts, gather inspiration, and share good practise.
For instance, I attended a summer school in Reykjavik just before starting my current post, and I met with the sabbaticals at the University of Iceland. It was a very interesting visit and given the small size of the country they have a lot of direct contact with the government and government agencies (e.g. the student loan company). They get funding from three main sources: university, government, and the student loan company – which could be a potential conflict of interest!
Thanks to Ondrej for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.
This interview is the second in 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.