In this interview we talk to Cat O’Driscoll, Co-ordinator of the new pilot National Student Engagement Programme in Ireland. She has a wide experience of student representation at university, Irish and European levels. We met up with her at our Associate Trainer training event in Dundee last month, in which she and her project’s student trainer team were participating, to find out more about developments in Ireland.
1. Firstly, what is your background in representation, and how did you end up in your current role?
I was a course rep on my microbiology course at University College Cork (UCC) in 2008, and then representative for the college of science, engineering and food science. I then chaired UCC’s student council, and became the sabbatical Vice-President for Education.
That got me involved in the national level, and I became the Union of Students In Ireland (USI)’s Vice-President Academic Affairs and Quality Assurance and successfully re-ran for the position for a second year. I then got a post with the European Students’ Union (ESU), with responsibility for the cluster of work on higher education funding and government.
2. That’s quite a progression! What made you keep coming back for more?
In my class at university there were various problems such as timetabling, and it motivated me to try to fix things. From there, I networked and found myself being recommended and encouraged to go for other roles.
3. Having worked at all those different levels, do you feel that there is a real connectivity between them?
Yes. The systems do all feed into each other, though each level is not always aware of the others. For instance, course reps don’t always understand the national structures, and national representatives tend not to understand the international dimension.
Yet the issues faced by students in Belgium, Armenia, Ireland or wherever are often so similar. The difference between disciplines can be very different but, for example, law students all across Europe face very similar issues and challenges.
4. So that gave you an appreciation of the value of the European dimension to quality. What is that value?
Of course countries are all naturally at different stages in their student engagement, and the European student network helps share good practice – and the bad practice too, to learn from it!
However, there was a major imperative with the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), because that made a European student rep system really important to feed into reforms. Evidence of this can be seen in the latest version of the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG), which has embedded student-centred actions throughout.
5. Do you feel that these areas of work feed back downwards? What, for instance, is the impact and value of the ESG?
You can see it in Ireland. There’s a clear link between the ESG and the brand new core statutory guidelines that have been produced in Ireland. These are used by institutions to establish internal processes which are in turn structured to feed right into class and module level discussions. The Irish system has embedded these international principles and were written to capture them.
6. So tell us about the new national project in Ireland that you’re working on.
The USI attended last year’s sparqs training for course rep trainers, and realised the benefit that a national programme could have and began discussions with Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI). At the same time, the Higher Education Authority (HEA), our national strategic body that is responsible to government, established a working group on student engagement which established various principles. All this came into being together with HEA, USI and QQI working to create this national project to implement those principles.
We’re just at the pilot stage at the moment, six months into an eighteen month process, working with five higher education institutes out of twelve that applied to be a part of the pilot. We aim to roll out the pilot afterwards.
7. What’s involved in the pilot?
There are two streams. One is on building student capacity, which is our course rep training programme. The other is building institutional capacity, with institutional analysis work to look at strengths and weaknesses in student engagement.
8. What will be the outcomes of those streams?
The work will identify some national themes that can be worked on in partnership by institutions who have common priorities, and the project will co-ordinate this work. There will also be institutional-specific work areas too, such as learning and teaching or feedback and assessment.
9. Do students’ unions and course reps in Ireland successfully engage with these sorts of questions?
To be honest there is variable practice in the sector. In some there is excellent engagement, in others the students are very engaged but not engaged well by the system, and elsewhere the students and system just do not engage each other. Success has come from student reps organically in the past, and while USI and others have established some good practices over time, it’s not yet established in terms of engagement in decision-making. And that’s the next piece of work for the project!
Thanks to Cat 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.