23 Sep 2015

Interview with Rebecca Maxwell Stuart, student engagement researcher and practitioner

In this interview we talk to student engagement researcher and practitioner Rebecca Maxwell Stuart, who is a former sabbatical officer, international student and sparqs team member. She has just completed a thesis on transnational student engagement which you can read in our Resource Library.

1. You’ve just completed your thesis on transnational education – congratulations! What motivated you to research this topic? Presumably your own experiences as an international student have given you a good perspective on the topic.

When I was a student officer at the University of Strathclyde Students’ Association (USSA) I got sent an email from a transnational student studying in India who wanted some help with training as he was a class rep. I had never heard of transnational students before that and did not realise the sheer number of students studying a Scottish degree overseas! So when I started my Masters I knew that I wanted to investigate these sorts of students more, as they are technically supposed to have the same opportunities as a student in Scotland. I wanted to see if that was the case and how student engagement differed for transnational students.

2. In your research you discovered that engagement of transnational students is claimed to be comprehensive but only manifests itself strongly at the course level. Of the many recommendations for action your thesis includes, what do you think are the most vital?

The fact that transnational students are most engaged at course level signifies what they deem as important in their education. You have to remember that a lot of these students are working at the same time and are paying a significant amount of money to get a Scottish degree, so of course they are going to be highly engaged at course level. However, my findings found that even though this was the case, there was very little in regards to feedback mechanisms, particularly in relation to students providing feedback to the institution on their experience. One of the reasons for this was that transnational students saw evaluation forms and, arguably class reps, as tools for complaining; if there was not action, or they did not find out what had been done in relation to their feedback then they did not see the point in providing feedback. Another reason is that the majority of transnational students I talked to told me that they were extremely discouraged from contacting their teachers outside of class. As a result of poor feedback mechanisms the transnational students were often resigned to identifying themselves as customers, and nowhere near partners that we see in Scotland.

So I think because students are most engaged at course level, that is where things need to be improved in relation to feedback mechanisms. Once well-structured and effective feedback mechanisms are put in place THEN you can get transnational students more engaged at other levels.

3. Your thesis talks about the idea of an “apathy cycle” between staff, students and the university, where the idea that students aren’t interested becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You suggest that good dialogue and some external involvement may be the key to smashing it, but what would prevent this belief taking hold in the first place?

Communication. I guess it related to what I said earlier, if you have effective feedback mechanisms in place then transnational students will be more engaged, the staff will begin to value the opinion of these students and the parent institution in Scotland will be more aware of these students and their experiences. And let’s not forget students’ associations because a lot of officers just do not know that these types of students exist, and how can they find out about their experiences if they are so far away and there is no feedback coming back to Scotland? So in summary, communication and general visibility of transnational students will help to break the apathy cycle.

4. You’ve been a sabbatical officer at university, have studied abroad, have done a project for sparqs on student engagement in Enhancement Themes, and have most recently undertaken short research for NUS Scotland on student engagement across the Commonwealth. We often like to say that Scotland is pioneering in student engagement, but has your research at home and abroad given you a fuller appreciation of whether we are as good as we claim?

If I am honest, Scotland is definitely pioneering in student engagement! The level of partnership working at Scottish universities and across the sector is amazing in comparison to some countries I have studied in! But that is not to say that we should stop progressing and that there is not more to learn from outside of Scotland. For example, in Finland the vast majority of students are involved in the student unions and there is a definite strong sense of community there. In Brazil, at my friend’s University, Senate is broadcast on University television to all staff and students.

Scotland is pioneering in student engagement, but we should never stop progressing as the students we are engaging today may not be same as the students we are engaging tomorrow.

5. And now that your Masters is complete, what lies ahead for you? Are you still keen to further explore the world of student engagement?

I think I will always be involved in the world of student engagement as it is just a fascinating area to work on and to research! I don’t believe there are enough advocates of student engagement so I want to try and encourage more to talk about this topic! Just now, I don’t know what is around the corner for me; maybe a PhD, maybe a job, I’ll just have to wait and see!

Thanks to Rebecca 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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