In this interview, we talk to Josh Gall, Regional President of the Students’ Association at North East Scotland College. He is in his second sabbatical year, having served a year as Depute President. Previously he studied Social Sciences at the college’s Fraserburgh campus.
1. Can we start with our favourite opening question – what does the phrase “student engagement” mean to you?
Student engagement to me is the empowering of students to be involved in shaping their learning experience and wider student experience. Widening the opportunities for students to expand their experiences and skills via extra-curricular opportunities, e.g. events/activities (fun/social/informative), campaigns, strategic level tasks, etc.
2. How did you first get involved in student representation?
I first began my journey within student representation in my first year attending college, standing for an Executive Officer position of Equality and Diversity. My first year of student representation took place in the year Banff and Buchan College and Aberdeen College merged in 2013, this posing to be a particularly challenging time to protect and maintain student representation during the transition and beyond.
3. What are some of the projects you are working on in the students’ association this year?
Our Students’ Association have many projects/aims that we are working towards this year. One of our key strategic aims is to improve and increase the Association’s interface with the regional student body and to create an attractive image for the Association in order to draw more students to engage with us directly as volunteers, elected officer and even elected sabbaticals in the future (contributing to the sustainability of our Students’ Association).
As part of this, we are looking to identify some campaigns that our students can be involved in to hopefully increase student participation in shaping the college experience and their involvement with the Students’ Association.
We are also looking to establish some clubs and societies, which our Students’ Association/college has been missing for a long time. Interest has already been shown for an LGBT+ Group and a Music Group.
The college and Students’ Association are taking part in the Scottish Government’s ‘Period Poverty’ scheme where free female sanitary products are made available to those who need. Our Students’ Association is distributing these free resources to any of our students who express an interest in the scheme. This is supporting our students who may struggle financially and this initiative removes the financial worries for those who require these products.
4. You’ve also been heavily involved in the creation of the college’s Student Partnership Agreement. What do you think are the opportunities and benefits of having an SPA?
Working on the SPA has allowed the college and the Students’ Association to have open, honest discussions on the state of student engagement within the institution and Students’ Association. From this, both parties have been able to discuss and identify the collective tasks and responsibilities we have to improve our student engagement in the college.
Not only this, both parties have been able to highlight the individual tasks and responsibilities we have to contribute to this and then discuss how we can support each other in achieving this goal. The SPA creates an overarching plan as to how our institution as a whole, including the Students’ Association, can create a better learning and student experience.
5. You mentioned the merger. Tell us about the challenges of engaging students in a multi-campus context. You studied in Fraserburgh but presumably spend a lot of time on the road!
Working in a college that has three very different campuses, physically, geographically and culturally, poses many challenges. One of the biggest challenges is staffing our offices. We are a team of two full-time sabbatical officers and a Student Engagement Co-ordinator. We have a main campus in Aberdeen City with 4000 FT students that we staff 5 days a week; a smaller Engineering/Construction based campus in the South of Aberdeen City with 800 FT students, that is staffed 1 day a week; and a Community Based Campus in Fraserburgh situated 40+ miles from Aberdeen City, with 1200 FT students, staffed 3 days a week (all FT Student figures are close estimates).
Prior to merger, Fraserburgh had an office that was staffed 5 days a week, so it is now difficult to maintain the student engagement levels that were achieved in the past with an office that is closed 2 days a week, with less staff on campus. The same can be said for the Aberdeen City Based campuses which pre-merger had significantly more staff coverage, so maintaining the same student engagement levels is difficult. It is difficult, if not impossible, to hold cross-campus student activity due to the large geographical distance, which is an issue for our unpaid volunteers/officers, as they have college/other life commitments. A cross-campus event could eat up an entire day for our volunteers due to travel time, etc.
It is also safe to say that functioning over a large region has fairly large impacts on the Students’ Association budget (which is not overly large for a college of our size). Constitutionally it is difficult to apply the structures we have to each of our campuses as they have very different dynamics/student demographics, e.g. having 5 elected officer positions to fill in the Aberdeen Campuses from a student population of 4800 FT students. Then duplicated, 5 elected positions to fill in the Fraserburgh Campus of 1200 FT students can be a big challenge.
6. So how do you as Regional President try to represent all those students? What is it like to speak up for such a diverse and disparate student community at the highest level, such as college committees?
When running and co-ordinating student engagement and activities across our region, I am always asking myself and those I work with “how can we apply this to Fraserburgh or Altens?” It is important that as an Association we are always ensuring equality of treatment for all of our students, regardless of campus location. This may mean that our activities are not identically mirrored in each campus, but that we secure the same outcome/experience, although the delivery is different to match the needs of the campus and demographic of students. In saying that, we also try to tailor the type of messages/activities that we bring to individual campuses, as certain issues may pertain to urban issues and vice versa for rural issues, etc.
As for representation at a higher level, such as on college committees, it is again down to applying the same approach as mentioned above. I am always looking out for any gaps in representation for the smaller campuses when policies and procedures are discussed or new initiates are brought in. At the end of the day, we want all of our students to have an equal experience in this large regional college and there needs to be an understanding that sometimes different approaches need to be taken to ensure that equal experience. That, I would say, is one of my key roles in sitting on college committees, as I believe that this organisation in particular still has the tendency to focus on the main campus. I just like to refocus the attention to the region as a whole so that our students can leave college happy that they had a fulfilling experience regardless of where in the region they studied.
Thanks to Josh 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.