In this interview we talk to Ruth Tudor, President of the Open University Students’ Association. She left school with eight ‘O’ grades and one Higher, and started working as a dental nurse, gaining qualification in that role and then specialist qualifications. She worked her way to a senior position over the following twelve years, but after three years as a dental sales rep she decided the time was right to try and achieve some sort of qualification! She selected the Open University so she could continue to work while she studied. She started studying in 2003 and in 2009 achieved a BSc (Hons) Health and Social Care. She decided to continue to study and in 2014 achieved an MA Social Sciences. Ruth became involved with the OU Students’ Association in Scotland quite early on and in 2010 was elected as Deputy President and then elected President in 2015.
1. What does student engagement mean in a university where all students learn online at a distance?
It presents us with a challenge. We have 200,000 members spread all over the globe and many students choose to study with the OU because they are busy, have commitments or simply just want to achieve a study goal with the minimum of fuss. This means our student body can be hard to reach and engage with.
2. You’re based in Scotland but president of a student body that is UK-wide (and beyond). This presumably gives you access and insight into the systems and cultures of engagement across the UK. What have you learned about this in your role?
The most important thing I have noticed about other institutions’ engagement is how much easier it is (I think!). It must be great to have everybody available to engage face-to-face. I don’t for one minute think it’s simple but being able to walk up to a fellow student and speak to them must be rewarding as you get an instant response. Even on Facebook responses aren’t always immediate. We also use Twitter and Instagram as well as regular newsletters.
3. Many other institutions and students’ associations often struggle to engage all their membership, for instance those at satellite campuses, part-time students, and sometimes even “traditional” students – if you have thousands of students on a large campus, speaking to them all is an enormous undertaking! What tips or experiences can you share?
Indeed it is, as our only real way of communicating is through electronic means! Over the last few years we have made much better use of social media as we find this is where most students are. This allows us to engage with our student membership in a way that appears to suit many of them. However we also send out newsletters four times a year and have the ability to send out targeted messages where necessary.
We also make use of the Virtual Learning Environment that the university provides though this is not popular with many students. We also keep a list of students who have engaged with us at some point and aim to keep in touch with those particular students. Often the university holds meetings where we work with the staff to jointly arrange for the students’ association to be involved.
Engaging with our students is one of our biggest challenges and equally we have to accept that there are some students who choose to study at a distance for a reason and will never engage. We just aim to engage with as many students as we can and publicise whatever we can, whenever we can.
4. What are you working on during your term of office? Are there any projects relating to student engagement and quality you could tell us about?
We have a two pronged approach. We work with the university to increase their engagement with us and we also engage with students with a view to building a community. Many OU students tells us that it is an isolating experience studying with the OU – it is, I’ve done it! Equally our students want to belong to a community so we try to provide that. Our students miss the support you get on campus, in the bar and in lecture theatres so we also try to bring students together so they can support each other.
5. You mention working with the university. How easy is that? You’ve illustrated the challenge of engaging with your membership, but presumably the same challenge exists in terms of building good informal links with staff, sitting on committees, and making change in partnership.
Working with the university has been a challenge but it has definitely improved in my time as President and under the presidency of my predecessor. I have been very lucky in that some of the senior staff within the university are very keen on student engagement and so I have managed to build good working relationships with those people and then with their support have managed to extend working relationships with more staff at the university. We are now getting far more opportunities to engage, almost to the point of saturation!
We do sit on as many committees as I can get bums on seats but we are aware that there are places where we aren’t. I am hoping this will be addressed through a review which is currently taking place; equally we are being invited to engage in ways we hadn’t been previously. The difficulty for some is that with no students on campus many staff never see a student from one year’s end to another and there can be a lack of thought when meetings are arranged and papers made available as it can be forgotten that often our students have jobs or responsibilities that need notice in order to be available. This means I often have to remind senior members of staff to bear in mind the busy lives that OU students lead
I am very grateful for the support I receive from some senior members of staff, without which the students’ association wouldn’t be able to engage as much as we do.
Thanks to Ruth 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.