31 May 2016

Interview with Paul Chapman, University of Manchester Students' Union

In this interview we talk to Paul Chapman, Director of Student Support and Involvement at the University of Manchester Students’ Union. Paul currently leads the Students’ Union’s student engagement activity which includes the ‘traditional’ activities such as advice and welfare, student groups, societies and volunteering, as well as the student representative functions, democracy and campaigning. In addition, this remit includes a growing relationship with the university engaging students within a broader, more learning-specific range of activities. Prior to this Paul worked as Head of Engagement at Birmingham City University Students’ Union and was seconded to the University’s learning and teaching unit where in partnership with the SU they created the Student Academic Partners scheme which was the forerunner for many student engagement initiatives now commonplace in other parts of the UK. He has worked with the Higher Education Academy on their Student as Partners theme and regularly presents at conferences for NUS, QAA and other student engagement initiatives such as the RAISE network and REACT programme. He sits on the advisory board of Jisc’s Change Agents’ Network as well as the advisory board for the joint HEFCE/NUS national project, The Student Engagement Partnership (TSEP).

1. We assume from your current role that you see a significant need for students’ unions to be equipped to participate in shaping quality, so what do the terms “student engagement” and “partnership” mean to you from an SU staff perspective?

I’m a firm believer in partnership, not only at an individual level between staff and students, but also at an organisational level between the representative body (namely students’ unions or associations) and the institution. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits such an approach can offer all parties, removing barriers to involvement and active participation through to creating a new learning intervention that works. People often concentrate on the areas of overlap where it’s comfortable and similar, but what interests me are the areas at the opposing ends of the spectrum, where opinions can be different. I still believe there is room for partnership and engagement there.

Defining student engagement and partnership is challenging because these are very subjective terms and often have a personalised experience within them and as such creating clear cut outcomes and impacts is difficult. There are a number of definitions out there which work for different situations, purposes and with different stakeholders. What’s clear to me is that student engagement to a senior leadership team at an institution can be very different to a programme leader at the interface of teaching and both will be different to the understanding of a 1st, 2nd or 3rd year undergraduate student. At Birmingham City University we created an approach that student engagement is a ‘state of mind’ or a philosophy about wanting to have better relationships between staff and students in order to create a learning community…and I still like that as a working definition.

In terms of unions being ‘equipped’ I think this is where more work can be done in translating terminology, models and theories from what can be a very academic endeavour into a practical understanding of a shared nomenclature. The work of TSEP and others in becoming resource hubs for models of activity is important to spread this kind of work broader and wider. Ultimately for me, partnership is student engagement and student engagement is partnership. It’s a shared philosophy of wherever possible, getting students to be involved at every level of the institution, inside their discipline and outside. It’s about taking risks, learning together and sharing the outcomes, good or bad. From an SU perspective it’s about demonstrating that we have a role in the new age of universities where traditional structures and processes are being challenged. Traditionally students’ unions could have been seen to have a slightly removed, reactive role in simply ‘representing’ the student opinion on learning. I think now, through partnership and collaboration, this role is bigger, more proactive and more central on campus and in the institution.

2. We’re aware of some substantial changes going on in the HE sector in England, such as the new Teaching Excellence Framework. Can you summarise a little of the impact of such developments, and why you feel the student voice is an essential part of those conversations?

The recent publication of the White Paper and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has indeed stirred up the narrative around a new sector framework. The White Paper covers a wide range of issues, including the proposals of linking tuition fee levels to institutional performance, the ability for new ‘challenger’ education providers to be recognised quicker through to the metrics being adopted to gauge ‘teaching excellence’ and the creation of an Office for Students resulting in a shakeup of established sector bodies and their functions. The response has been varied and wide-reaching. With a view to increasing the information at hand to enhance student choice and a focus on the quality of teaching, the aim seems to be sound. However, the detail seems to be at odds with the narrative we have enjoyed over the last few years around collaboration and partnership and the progressive role of students; indeed some would suggest this perpetuates the consumer focus of students.

For me, there is a lack of emphasis on promoting staff and students working together to create enhanced learning and teaching, as opposed to simply distilling teaching down to metrics that many feel are far removed from the impact of teaching, for example graduate employability and earnings. As your question suggests, I think it is crucial, more than ever, to maintain an active student voice in these developments in ensuring the true experience and impact of quality teaching is heard. We know that many student engagement activities happening at a local level between students and front line teaching and support staff have a huge impact on the student, but those tools that assess satisfaction and experience often miss the nuance of this relationship. Diluting teaching down to such arbitrary components misses a huge chunk of the learning and teaching journey that, I fear, puts at risk excellent teaching and teachers. Naturally, student voice mechanisms are crucial in highlighting areas of deficit too, where teaching provision or learning resources are inadequate or indeed where the support structure outside of the curriculum doesn’t meet students’ needs.

All that said, I feel the White Paper and the TEF offer some opportunities if we remember the basis for meaningful engagement which we have built up over the years, maintaining the value sets created between staff and students and the principles which underpin collaboration and partnership. How institutions approach dealing with teaching excellence within the context of the TEF will be crucial to the continuation of student engagement through partnership. I see the potential for lots of positive collaboration around teaching development and teaching assessment alongside staff and students where institutions (and unions) are willing to take some risks outside of a prescribed framework.

3. You’re a member of Jisc’s Advisory Group and TSEP’s Advisory Board. Tell us a little about what is involved in these roles.

These groups are a pleasure to be involved in, not only for the fact that they are groups of like-minded individuals committed to bettering the experience of both staff and students within a learning environment, but also for the ability to get a snapshot of the breadth and depth of activity occurring across the sector. TSEP aims to bridge the gap between sector bodies and policy and academic experts and student engagement practitioners. As mentioned previously, I think this translation piece is crucial for students and students’ unions in order to keep a level playing field of common understanding and practice and I think my role is to perform some of the latter. The students’ union sector is widely varied in terms of form, function and resources but all have a similar remit of enhancing the student experience through varying approaches to student engagement. TSEP also commissions projects and research into student engagement through different lenses, be it the Postgraduate Research experience, part-time students, student engagement in further education colleges or the barriers faced by commuter students to engaging in wider university activity or promoting the role and value of student-led teaching awards further.

Jisc’s Change Agents’ Network is a great collection of sector representatives and practitioners bringing together a fantastic array of projects, online resources and practice with a unique flavour of being supported by technology, which again when looking at students’ unions is an area to be explored further to maximise engagement and representation. The Change Agents’ Network also supports an online, SEDA-accredited learning module for staff and students who engage in change projects as well as having direct links through members on the board with the Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change. This journal offers a platform for disseminating activity as well as offering another opportunity for student engagement with students authoring research, opinion pieces and case studies on their role within the learning environment.

With the continued growth of initiatives with student engagement at the heart of their delivery, groups like TSEP are invaluable in keeping a track on practice, joining the dots of complementary activity and generally sharing great practice. The role I have, and let us not forget those students who also feature on the Boards, help keep activity grounded, relevant and in touch with those in which it aims to affect most: staff and students sharing, challenging and creating new content for the benefit of others.

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Thanks to Paul 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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