22 Sep 2014

Interview with the University of Lincoln Student Engagement Team

In the third in our “Talking Student Engagement” series, we look south of the border to the University of Lincoln. The university has a number of interesting features to its approach to student engagement, and this is co-ordinated by a central team. We spoke to team members Alice Coleman, Davide Castro and Dan Derricott to find out more.

1. On the University of Lincoln’s website, you describe your student engagement strategy as “what we believe to be the most comprehensive strategy for developing and embedding partnership working in the UK”. That’s quite a claim! Tell us briefly about some of the aspects of it of which you’re most proud.

What’s special about our strategy is that it makes an explicit commitment to partnership working between each part of the university and students, starting with a great relationship between senior managers and the students’ union (SU) but going far beyond this too. Every school and professional support department is involved because we work on the basis that student engagement has most impact when it's close to the point of delivery - not when it's handled high up in an abstract way.

In addition our strategy rests on the principles of Students as Producers which rejects the premise of students as consumers within a marketised system of Higher Education. Universities are bound by central government policy, of course, but we don’t see that as an impediment toward greater student involvement in decision making processes. Quite the opposite, we see that as an opportunity to illustrate that there are other ways of developing Higher Education with students’ interests at the core of what we do.

We’re also proud that our strategy states the need for both staff and students to be ‘engagement-ready’. This is crucial, as it recognises the change in behaviour and working practice needed from both parties. It's all too easy to forget that you can't have student engagement without engaged staff.

Whilst some universities regard student engagement as superficial engagement with structures, in Lincoln we regard student engagement as fundamental to the development of the university itself. Here student engagement stretches from academic representation in committees to student involvement in interview panels for new members of staff.

So for example when we talk about a new personal tutoring policy, induction and transition or internationalisation, ultimately not only are we talking about student involvement in the consultation process we are also talking about student involvement in the drafting of such policies. There is little interest in imposing a set of cultural values on an entire student body. Instead we welcome students as partners and take them seriously as our peers. Our aim is to empower students to be ambitious and the values underpinning our strategy reflect that.

2. Tell us a bit about the role of the Student Engagement Champions across the university.

Student Engagement Champions were introduced to channel and amplify the reach of our strategy. Every School and Professional Support Department has a trained Champion who works to augment the principles set out in our strategy. Champions lead on the development of student engagement within their School or Professional Support Departments and they are a point of contact for students and staff on student engagement matters. Crucially, Champions involve other members of staff within their School or Professional Support Department in student engagement work, particularly staff who may not have been involved in this type of work before. Keeping student engagement at the heart of their area’s focus and at the forefront of their area’s conversations is another way in which the Champions fulfil their role.

Champions also promote opportunities provided by our team for students to become involved with, and are particularly useful when targeting less engaged students. Champions work closely with student reps to support, develop and deliver student engagement locally. Our HR department works with Heads of Schools and Services to ensure Champions are given enough time and support to be effective catalysts for the enhancement of student engagement.

Each Champion has created a Student Engagement Plan, which documents innovative ways of how they intend to engage students in the future. These plans are then implemented and monitored with their ‘indicators of success’ used to measure the impact of their strategies. Their role also involves learning about successful student engagement practice elsewhere in the university by attending training sessions and workshops run by our team. They can then share ideas within their School or Professional Support Department and consider new ways of engaging students.

All in all, the role has evolved quite a lot!

3. You mentioned that the team of Student Engagement Champions includes all Professional Support Departments – including the likes of Finance or Catering, where one might not instantly identify a direct relevance to students shaping their education. Tell us about the rationale and impact of this.

We believe that professional support departments, even ones that aren’t traditionally student facing, have an impact on the student experience and should challenge themselves to think about ways to engage students. So for example, Catering provides a range of services to students, staff and visitors at the University. To ensure that these services are adequate the department has been working with students and the Students’ Union. It’s critical that they are knowledgeable about student life and the effect of their decisions. Developing student engagement in these departments makes them more acquainted and better able to improve services in relation to students’ needs.

There have been a number of initiatives such as postgraduate students and staff working together to develop a new catering brand and new communications channels that help to improve the service.

Likewise in Finance, a department that most would consider largely non-student facing, they have strived to initiate student engagement activities over the past year. They’ve created a new dedicated ‘Student and Student Systems’ team to focus on the student facing activities and the overall student experience. This has included evaluating and refining payment processes for international students upon arrival; a small fix that makes a big difference to students which came about from students being more engaged.

4. Obviously there are national factors contributing to the increasing importance of student engagement, but what is specifically driving these developments at Lincoln? Are there particular institutional circumstances that have led to this focus?

The creation of our institution’s unique Student as Producer framework specifically drives our focus on the importance of student engagement and helps to increase partnership and avoid viewing students as passive consumers or ‘customers’ of education. Furthermore, the university’s current teaching and learning strategy recognises the value of meaningful student engagement in providing momentum and motivation for continuous quality improvement.

We also recognise the importance of belonging, community and identity for our students, and we are in the process of trying to capture this in a 'one community' (of staff and students) concept. Engaging students and the development of the university allows our students a greater sense of all these things.

5. What’s been the impact of this university-wide approach? What do students do or say which confirms that things are different?

A university-wide approach has been useful, as both students and staff have a point of contact in every Professional Support Department or School who can make the work relevant to their context. It has also had a positive impact on our team, as we have a better awareness of what is happening in different areas of the university that we may not have known about otherwise. This is useful as it enables us to see synergy between different areas which may not have crossed paths, who can then work together on student engagement projects.

The university-wide approach also ensures that there is widespread awareness of student engagement work, and more staff are discussing engagement. This keeps successful student engagement ideas circulating whilst maintaining student engagement as a relevant and current topic throughout the university. Consequently, staff members across the university in general have a better understanding of what student engagement is.

Another of the clear outcomes of the university-wide approach is the level of engagement that reps have. Our reps have been better engaged thanks to meetings and workshops that include both the Champions and the reps within their Colleges. Reps also appear to have a better idea of what meaningful student engagement looks like and the importance of it throughout their time at university. Initiatives implemented by the various Champions across the Schools have received positive student feedback, as they feel happier and more knowledgeable within their courses.

6. And where might you go from here? Are there any emerging or expected areas of work around student engagement that the team has identified for the future?

There are several different focal points for the next academic year. Staff members across the university have been tasked with the challenge of reaching less engaged students. There is a pool of engaged students that are involved in many opportunities, but it is more difficult to engage students who are not as naturally enthusiastic. Focusing on reaching these students is an emerging area of our work for the future.

The opportunities we currently offer to students will also be reviewed. These opportunities have been successful, but we intend to use feedback from students and staff to improve them. We are also introducing new schemes and strategies related to Teaching and Learning over the next academic year. These schemes and strategies will focus on peer-assisted learning, students consulting on teaching and personal tutors.

We will focus on developing staff and their understanding of meaningful student engagement and partnership, including the complex challenges around power relationships. We will transform our Champions into leaders of change who can disrupt and reengineer the status quo in terms of power relationships, but in a way that brings colleagues along with them rather than alienate them.

Finally, the Student Engagement Team is growing and moving internally to a new department, the Educational Development and Enhancement Unit, where we are excited by the prospect of helping rebuild our PGCE (HE) programme with pedagogies of partnership at its heart amongst other things.

7. Our last question is specifically to you, Dan. Stepping back from the University of Lincoln, you’ve worked with sparqs in the past – not least on our QUEST project. Tell us a little about your own background in student engagement, and some of the European activities you’ve engaged in.

I started out as an engaged student and students' union officer at Lincoln which led me to discover the national and European unions of students along with the world of HE quality assurance. Through an ethos of saying yes and signing up to new opportunities, I found myself as a student member of the QAA Board and founding Chair of its Student Advisory Board and similarly found myself involved with the European Students' Union (ESU) co-ordinating some of their student engagement work. I always tried to get stuck in and make the most of opportunities and it paid off.

I have since completed my time on the QAA Board but am still involved with ESU representing them on the Steering Committee of the European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF), which I also now chair (and am the first student rep to do so). I continue to serve as a student reviewer in various countries too, evaluating institutions and national quality assurance agencies, which gives me an invaluable perspective to draw on in my day job.

I'm also fluent in the language and acronyms of higher education now – or, as my team says, I speak in code!

 

Thanks to Alice, Davide and Dan for being an interviewees. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is the third 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.

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