In this interview we talk to Jodie Waite, incoming Vice-President (Education) of NUS Scotland for 2017-18. In 2016-17 she has been Vice-President for the Glasgow School of Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) Students’ Association, and served a previous sabbatical year as Vice-President for the School of Health and Life Sciences. She graduated with an Honours Degree in Business with Marketing in 2015.
1. What got you interested in student engagement in quality to start with?
As a student who lived at home during studying, and being the first in my family to attend university, I didn’t once engage in academic representation as a student. Despite endless platforms being available at GCU to feed back my experiences, I was certainly a victim of the ‘go to class and then go home’ culture that many home students face.
It wasn’t until I had almost finished my 4th year of university that I really engaged with my Students’ Association, which bugs me endlessly looking back… all those wasted years and opportunities! I had ended up getting involved in our student media, sports and societies in my last year, which I had been made aware of whilst partaking in our Student Leaders Programme.
However, it was once I had actually started my term as a Full Time Officer in 2015 that I became interested in student engagement in quality. With our unique school-based Full Time Officer model at GCU, it was essential that I began learning about quality in education, and about academic representation overall. As someone who was most interested in the area of student welfare in my first year as a Full Time Officer, I found myself engaging our students in things like ELISRs and Enhancement Themes – things I had never even heard of as a student, but things that greatly sparked my interest nonetheless. By the time my second term started, engaging students in quality and in academic representation was my main focus, which led me to run for the NUS Scotland position of Vice President of Education.
Long story short, I certainly ‘fell’ into student engagement in quality, but I’m so glad I did! I believe that, being someone who got involved in this area relatively late, I can understand first-hand many of the practical barriers of engaging students in academic representation and quality, and I am particularly interested in devising ways to break down these barriers.
2. So given your experience as someone who hasn’t been engaged in quality much previously, what are your lessons for institutions and students’ associations? How do you think the opportunity to shape the quality of your learning should be sold to students who might not naturally think to get involved in this?
Students’ associations and institutions are so guilty of using buzzwords and terms that only a very small minority of students understand, so I think one of the biggest lessons they could take would be to simplify everything – and then go back and simplify it all again! When I first became a Full Time Officer, there were words like ‘representation’ and ‘engagement’ being thrown about by everyone at everything. Now it’s so obvious to me what they mean, and I’m the one guilty of using them every day! But I’ll never forget that at the time I found it difficult to understand these concepts because they didn’t seem like tangible activities. If someone had come up to me and said ‘take student feedback and give it to the university’, or ‘go out and speak to students’ then it would have hit home much sooner what I was supposed to be doing as an officer. The most difficult parts and biggest barriers that I found when starting my role as Full Time Officer were the smallest things, and if you’d spoken to me about ‘representation’ or ‘engagement’ as a student then I would have run a mile (which I realise is extremely ironic now!).
I feel that the idea of simplifying concepts is of the utmost importance when aiming to engage students in the opportunity to shape the quality of their learning. Firstly, we need to look at the easiest and most effective way for students to feed back. I think we should simply ask them - what is good about your learning, what isn’t good, and what can be improved, because everyone understands how to respond to these types of questions. I think the second stage is then for the ‘experts’, i.e. academics and representatives, to put the feedback that they have received from students into ‘education speak’. For example, if a student has said that they always seem to read about theories that were devised by white men, then the ‘experts’ can then report that the curriculum for this student needs to be more liberated and diversified. However, if someone came in straight away and asked about how liberated students feel their curriculum is, then I’m not sure you would have a huge number of people really understanding what that means.
I also think that the people who engage students in the quality of their learning are the most important in this process and that they should be considered very carefully. For example, with the majority of GCU students being home students, I would say that the best people to engage students in the quality of their learning here are the lecturers. The only people I engaged with for my first three years as a student were my lecturers, and they were the one thing that we all had in common as students here. However, obviously this varies from institution to institution, so it would be difficult for one group of people, such as lecturers, to be identified as the people who should engage students in this process for across Scotland.
3. We interviewed your fellow VP, Chris Daisley, a few months back and it was interesting to get his perspective on GCU’s model of school-based sabbatical Vice Presidents. What was your experience of the role?
My first year as a Full Time Officer was the first year they had ever tried the school-based roles; therefore I was in a team with two people who had experienced our old model the previous year. I have to say, from what I had heard from them and from my own experience – I absolutely love our school-based representation model.
Our model means that we all take responsibility for educational remits within our schools which, as I said before, it the primary reason for my interest in education. Our model also allows for flexibility, because we negotiate for remit areas that we are interested in, as opposed to working on a remit that has already been set in stone.
Having the ability to negotiate every remit point means that the Full Time Officers all love what we do, and don’t have fixed remit points that we have no interest or passion for. We also have the ability to represent any school, so I represented the School of Health and Life Sciences in my first year because I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and work with a different school from the one I graduated from. However, this year I am representing Glasgow School for Business and Society, the school I graduated from, and it’s a completely different dynamic.
In addition to having a more varied remit than the traditional ‘VP Welfare’ or ‘VP Education’ remits, the new model has provided me with the experience of working with a school that is completely different from the one I graduated from. I also believe that having elements of education within all of our remits allows for more collaboration within the Full Time Officer team, and can help you find areas of interest that you may have never considered before (like it did with me!).
4. Looking ahead to your year in NUS Scotland, what are you hoping to work on?
I was elected on a manifesto that focuses on three things – Partnership, Inclusiveness, and Putting the ‘U’ back in NUS.
Under ‘Partnership’, I’d like to reflect Scotland’s Quality Enhancement Framework and work with Students’ Associations across Scotland to assist in developing Partnership Agreements with their institutions. We devised one at GCU, and I believe that having a collaborative agreement that underpins everything really does give students and apprentices a stronger voice in institutional decisions.
5. In what way? What do you feel has been the value and impact of your Student Partnership Agreement at GCU?
Most of us have grown up in a schooling system based on a hierarchal structure – your teacher is your superior, and you must do as they say. I think this is often ingrained in us throughout adulthood as well, and leads to the concept of working in partnership with staff at university or college level being quite an alien thing to do. Students can often feel a lot of pressure having a say in how their education is run, because although it’s never nice to feel like you’re at the bottom of the ladder, sometimes it’s daunting to have so much responsibility in your education if you aren’t used to it.
Having a Student Partnership Agreement from day one of students attending GCU ensures that both staff and students have the ability to understand what is expected from one another. Rather than some mystical story about how GCU students are able to work with staff, having an easily accessible document outlining their role as a student makes the transition into higher education less daunting. In addition, I feel that GCU students being aware from the outset how much they are valued as partners means that they will always have the confidence and platform to feed back any issues or suggestions to institutional staff, which greatly benefits all parties.
6. And how about your Inclusiveness point?
I want to focus on the gaps that still exist in Further and Higher education in Scotland. I have assisted in developing a policy for Student Carers at GCU, and as Vice President at NUS Scotland I am going to support Students’ Associations to develop policies that support underrepresented groups. In addition, I would like to focus on giving colleges and apprentices a much stronger voice at NUS Scotland, as I believe that there can often be a greater focus on universities than colleges.
7. And finally…?
Last but not least, under Putting the ‘U’ back in NUS, I am looking to produce a guide that explains the terminology that is often used at NUS Scotland and NUS UK events, so that members really do understand what is going on. I would also like to hold facilitated debates, where members of NUS Scotland are able to voice their opinions in a safe and inclusive environment. I do know, however, that remits and priorities certainly change drastically in these roles – so I’m excited to see what comes my way over the next year.
Thanks to Jodie 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.