In this interview we talk to Ian Glen, a Business Analyst in the Student Systems Unit at Heriot-Watt University. He completed an MSc and PhD in Applied Social Research at the University of Stirling. His thesis was an ethnographic study of a former mining community and he was interested in how their community and belonging was understood, maintained and reproduced 25 years after the mine was abandoned. Yet, the best part of his training was that this opportunity allowed him to teach, and work with, students in areas of social theory, social policy and social research methods. He also worked for a Scottish Government Minister in the Scottish Parliament which, to date, has been his only detour outwith Higher Education. At Heriot-Watt, he has been involved in Quality Enhancement and is now working on taking forward improvements to their global student experience and communication plans. He also sits on sparqs’ University Advisory Group.
1. In a nutshell, what does the term “student engagement” mean to you?
I have been thinking about this for a while. For me ‘student engagement’ has become one of these lexical phrases which universities, colleges and bodies use to encompass ‘the student voice’. I think student engagement has to allow the individual student, whether in Scotland or Malaysia or Siberia, to learn and interact with the University in a way which best works for them. We have a phrase in our Learning and Teaching Strategy which has stuck with me: ‘identical academic standards, diversity of learning experiences’.
Yet, student engagement in a university is so much more than what goes on within the classroom or on the VLE. Engaging with students with their co-curricular, professional and personal development is what I think universities can do so much more on. My current role as a Business Analyst will be working across projects designed to modernise our Registry operations and to engage with students, from all our campuses and modes of study, to make services and processes work for them.
For me, student engagement is about enabling every student to shape their learning environment which works best for them to get the most of out their university experience.
2. We talk such a lot about why and how academic staff should engage students in shaping their learning experiences. Do you think it is just as important that administrative departments should do so too? And what do you learn from students and student reps who you work with?
From my experience, communities require fresh ideas to challenge accepted values and behaviours. Universities are beginning to realise their fortunate position of being in a cycle with bright, talented students and staff passing through and leaving their mark.
I think administrative departments, or professional services, do have a long way to go to realise the benefits of engaging with students and their representatives. George Kuh talks about taking a whole university to teach a student. While I realise the vision of this statement, I think if that is to work then the university will only do it well if they know what students want.
An example of how we are trying to do this at Heriot-Watt is our development of the University Student Panel. This will provide academic and professional service colleagues with an online forum to engage with all our students on matters like feedback, graduate attributes, employability, global mobility, accommodation, representation and strategic plans. We have 34,000 students. We need to help each of them shape their University and the best way we can do that is by empowering each of them to easily leave their mark but also provide them with the encouragement to shape this University if they want to.
The main thing I learn from Heriot-Watt students is that they are very bright. We ran enhancement workshops as part of our Academic Review process and the stars of the show were the student representatives (course representatives and School Officers) who challenge accepted ways of doing things. By the nature of our ‘Institutions’, we can become a bit ‘institutionalised’ and having new students, elected officers and representatives is so important to keep us innovating and not standing still. Heriot-Watt has a proud tradition of producing student leaders and graduates who shape the world in our areas of expertise – we want them to do this for their University while we have them!
3. We also understand you’ve been doing a lot of work with students on (re-)developing surveys. A couple of years back we produced a resource that helps practitioners think about engaging students in the design, delivery, analysis and action of feedback tools. Why do you think it is important not just to ask students their views, but also get them to shape how they are asked and what happens with what they say?
I think it is essential to get students involved in interpreting the data and presenting recommendations on how we make their lives better. We are trying to avoid blanket-surveying students and tailor our research inquiry methods to the issue we are trying to enhance. This will help us design services and interfaces which students recognise and use. This also provides our students with transferrable skills for further study and/or employment as well as designing better processes and enhancements if we know what will work for them. At Heriot-Watt, this is very important because of our global student community who learn, and use the University, in different ways (Dubai, UK, Malaysia, Approved Learning Partners, Independent Distance Learners). It is extremely encouraging that sparqs is beginning to explore how, as an organisation, it can understand more about TNE.
We are fortunate to have Rebecca Maxwell Stuart [who we interviewed last year, by the way] doing a PhD study on the global student experience at Heriot-Watt. As part of the data-gathering process, Rebecca has been using our annual survey as a means to gather data and I understand she will be following up with more qualitative research over the coming year.
4. Finally, can we take you back to your research into that mining community? Just as we try to engage students in their learning experiences, so (hopefully) citizens of communities like the one you studied are engaged in the decisions about the world around them. What do you think Scotland’s universities and colleges can learn – or indeed share – with the world of community engagement about how best to help people shape their experiences?
We should embrace new ideas from ‘outside the institution’ as the best universities are ones which have adapted to changes in how students learn, socialise and interact. This is not to say we forget about the traditions or the habitus of the university. Rather, we encourage universities to be places that students can belong to – whether they are active in the Union, based in Siberia interacting with the university through the VLE or through the academic disciplines. I have some ideas how we could do more to develop pathways from school/college and into universities to improve progression and retention.
Communities can be quite lonely places for ‘incomers’ so the best ones are able to embrace difference and I think Heriot-Watt has a vibrant global student community… but we need to do more and a key way to do this is to enable all our students to shape their university in the same way that the university shapes them.
Thanks to Ian 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.