30 Nov 2015

Interview with Iain Morrison, University of the Highlands and Islands

In this interview we talk to Iain Morrison, the Dean of Students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Iain has taught in Japan, Greece, England and Scotland and was part of the team that set up the newest university in Scotland. He has been on the sparqs Steering Committee for four years, will be one of its new Trustees and was part of the writing group for the UK Quality Code’s chapter on student engagement. He claims his biggest weakness is naïve optimism every time Ross County take to the field.

1. UHI has a unique structure and context, encompassing a wide geographical area, both higher and further education, and a number of delivery models. What does the term “student engagement” mean in such a model?

Yes, as the country’s youngest university we have a number of dimensions that are unusual: we cover half the land mass of Scotland, including many islands, and some of the remotest communities in Western Europe; we have wonderful technology including our own wider area network and extensive use of videoconferencing and online platforms; and we are also part of a new breed of tertiary institutions, the only one in Scotland and one of only a few in Europe. It is complex but the challenges of student engagement remain the same as elsewhere: how do we ensure that we work with our students, listen to their voices and include them as partners in decision-making across the university? Our new strategic plan puts students at the heart of the institution and we use our expertise in blended delivery to meet the learning, teaching and support needs and expectations of our diverse student body, studying in a wide variety of locations and contexts.

We do this in many ways: such as our Red Button feedback and problem resolution mechanism, working with sparqs to ensure student reps are trained, our committees protocol which is designed to help students navigate the often daunting waters of formal meetings and the formation of our splendid new students’ association HISA, which for the first time gives us students on the Boards of all our partner colleges and structural links between class reps and university court.

We are young and have lots to do, but I want the University of the Highlands and Islands to become known for its culture of student engagement. We will do this by working in partnership with our students to ensure their voices drive improvement and change.

2. UHI was the first university to develop a Student Partnership Agreement with its students’ association. Why were you so keen to create one, and how has it helped the university’s approach to student engagement?

Having taught at universities in other countries, when I returned home I felt that there was a growing difference in the discourse and reality of student engagement in higher education on both sides of the border. There is an ethos of co-operation and partnership working that is prevalent in the Highlands and Islands in many areas of life, but there is also a longstanding approach to the relationship with students across all universities in Scotland which does not always sit easily with the more consumerist nature of that relationship down south.

I jumped at the chance to be involved in the national group led by Mike Williamson (who has since left sparqs to join NUS Scotland) to develop something that would help engender and reinforce a genuine partnership model, rather than something that looked like a legal contract, and I was delighted that our Students’ Association President at the time also joined that group. That helped bring in our own SPA and I am proud that UHI was the first to do so. The SPA has helped provide a framework to support work streams of mutual interest with our Students’ Association. It also provides strategic and widespread visibility to the agreement itself, but also to the benefits of working together with HISA to improve our students’ experiences.

3. You’ve been at UHI for many years, but have also been involved in the work of sparqs through chairing our University Advisory Group and sitting on our Steering Committee. How have you seen the understanding and practice of student engagement across Scotland change in that time?

I am clearly not unbiased, but I think we have a lot to be proud of with sparqs and the work it has done, and continues to do, to support and promote student engagement: the resources it produces, the training it delivers and contributions to national debates are extraordinary given its size, and increasingly other countries are calling upon sparqs to learn from our own experiences in Scotland. We cannot be complacent but there is already much to be proud of in our sector. I think there is a genuine desire within universities to work in partnership with our students, to create cultures where students can contribute effectively and where these contributions are valued and acted upon. The Student Engagement Framework for Scotland articulates the dimensions and possibilities of that relationship and I would encourage colleagues to use the Framework and also to let sparqs know the ways in which it is being used. Recently I interviewed someone for a post who had constructed her superb presentation around the framework and we have used it in both our strategic and operational planning.

The current Quality Enhancement Framework review is adapting its work to take into account developments in the rest of the UK, such as the HEFCE quality review and the announcements relating to teaching excellence, and it would be unrealistic to expect that these will not have an impact in Scotland. However, it is extremely reassuring that the consultations already completed in Scotland have demonstrated a clear commitment across the sector to student engagement and a desire to explore ways in which we can build on our current strengths. I am therefore optimistic that student engagement will continue to flourish and that we will see ever increasing examples of genuine partnership working.

Thanks to Iain 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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