In this interview we talk to Kat Bateson, a Student Engagement Assistant with the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association, the students’ association of the University of the Highlands and Islands. She is a former student officer of Inverness College UHI and UHI itself, and recently graduated from her degree in literature. She previously studied her Highers in Inverness after leaving high school at 16, and was also Highland Youth Convener in 2015-16.
1. In your job at HISA, you work across multiple colleges and with both higher and further education students. How easy is it to generate effective student engagement in such a diverse context?
At the core of it, generating effective engagement is not much different to any other institution; the complications are in that you need to repeat the same project several times in several locations and develop a system that works for both FE and HE. Within that we then need to cater to the vast variety of students and ensure that a local context is in place, while maintaining the overarching regional picture.
The picture of UHI is extremely complex, and so the best thing to do when working in that is to keep everything as organised as possible. I have spreadsheets, lists and notes to myself on everything that is going on, so that I can see at a glance what needs doing and what is coming up.
Ultimately, working in the complexity of Highland becomes second nature. I’ve lived here all my life, and so travel and challenge are part and parcel of working here. The trade-off is worth it – I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the most beautiful places in the world with HISA.
2. Having been involved in student engagement activity for a number of years, and having seen it from both the student officer and staff perspective, do you see changes or improvements over time in how students are able to shape their learning?
The comparison in student engagement and student associations in UHI from five years ago to now is unrecognisable. When I was a student officer we had the donated time of the student support team. They were amazing, but long term projects and expanding year on year wasn’t an option which I think most college associations can relate to.
HISA now has an officer cohort of over 20, and a staff team of around 10. Our last President is now President of NUS Scotland. To imagine that this would have been possible even five years ago would have been inconceivable. Back then having even one staff member was a pipe dream, and HISA started out in an art cupboard in one of the old Inverness College campuses. HISA is on one of the great adventures of our time and I feel really lucky to be here.
3. Given that the HISA staff and officers are based across the Highlands and Islands, does that actually make the complex nature of UHI an advantage to you? If there are so many diverse environments for learning, do reps (and indeed staff such as yourself) perhaps have a richer perspective because they can see the strengths and weaknesses of multiple ways of learning, all within one students’ association?
Certainly – HISA has a really unique view of how engagement can and should work. One of the more fascinating parts of UHI is that each college has its own specialism which it delivers (i.e Forestry in Inverness College UHI or Equestrian Studies at North Highland College UHI). As an association we have to be ready to work with and respond to the needs of all of those students and balance the overall regional vision for the organisation.
I wouldn’t like to say that we get all of this right, or that we masterfully represent the views of every student without fail; I don’t think any association could claim that. We are however at the forefront of a new way of delivering education and engaging learners in their academic experience. Over time we’ve developed a really special kind of method of operating in that environment which is based on a respect for those students’ unique experience and the respect between colleagues that what we are doing hasn’t really been done before in Scotland.
4. Tell us about your time as Highland Council Youth Convener. What did that involve? And what do you think we could learn from youth engagement in a local authority?
Being Youth Convener was a great experience. The role was essentially the same as a student officer’s, but was geared towards a wider population of 13-25 year olds. All local authorities will have a Community Learning and Development plan, which I think officers would really benefit from giving a glance over.
In youth work, there are no insular projects; almost everything is done in partnership with expert organisations and with the guidance of a range of outside bodies. In comparison to students’ associations, a lot of what we do as a sector is very insular, and for a long time has succeeded on the sharing of expertise between ourselves (in Scotland anyway!). I do however think that going forward in what has been a more challenging political and financial climate, associations should be looking outwith the sector more regularly. Socrates said that “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing” and I think that sentiment will become more and more necessary as time goes on.
Thanks to Kat 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.