In this interview, we talk to Kerry Harrison, President (Education and Welfare) of Robert Gordon University Students’ Union. Previously she studied Management with HR and got involved with the union through the Mental Wellbeing Society.
1. You’re coming to the end of your second year as a sabbatical officer at RGU:Union. But what got you interested in representation and engagement in the first place?
As the Vice President of an active society I saw just how disengaged students at RGU were. The more involved I got with the Union, the more benefits I saw. I began to wonder why more students weren’t even aware of what the Union did for them, never mind get involved. I had never been a representative myself and didn’t really know how it worked because my class had never had an effective representative. This was an opportunity rather than a disadvantage to me coming into this position because I had a clean sheet!
2. What have been some of your main achievements as a sabbatical?
One of the first things I had to do was adapt our representation structures to reflect the academic restructure of the University. Thus, I created the School Officer position in place of Faculty Officers. This has allowed greater representation at higher levels and students have more direct contact with a student who they know can push forward their ideas. The role has also provided schools with a closer insight into the student experience.
I am also in a relatively unique position where my role covers both education and welfare. I’ve been able to connect these two parts to ensure that reps have a basic awareness of mental health through elective workshops, and incorporate equality information, as well as demonstrating how welfare issues can impact study.
3. RGU was one of the first institutions to develop a Student Partnership Agreement, and your “achieved in partnership” communication branding is certainly very visible on the campus. What do you think the SPA has achieved? Does it truly feel like the University and Students’ Association are in partnership in all they do?
I think the SPA has encouraged staff to think more widely about how they interact with students and to not be worried about what they might come up with! On a more specific note, I think we would have still made all the university-wide enhancements without such a strong SPA, but it has certainly helped with the publicity and communication of mechanisms and achievements. We have just reached the point of including schools far more in the SPA activity as part of this year’s theme. This should mean that the SPA responsibility no longer lies with central departments but all staff and students begin to feel more equal.
The Union and University do work in partnership in as many aspects as possible, but sometimes its right for the Union to take a stance and to run their own campaigns. This is the nature of a Student Union, so I guess some flexibility in the SPA is preferable from our point of view. The activist students at RGU will definitely want to make sure we have some way to fight for students if the University doesn’t necessarily agree. That being said, the SPA does encourage us to always try to work in partnership first and foremost. In the past two years this has been successful!
4. Something you’ve been involved in this past year was ESPAQ, the European project on student engagement in Armenia which we’ve been a partner of. You participated in the student officer exchanges – tell us a bit about that.
The trip to Armenia really was an eye-opening experience and something I’m very grateful for having the opportunity to do. I never imagined this role would take me there! I’m forever telling our students just how lucky they are and how they should take all the opportunities they have to provide feedback, work in partnership and get involved, because some don’t even have the choice.
I also learnt a lot about how we should sometimes take a step back and simplify our processes, there is a lot to be said for the simplicity of the systems abroad. Of course, checks and balances need to be made, but sometimes it’s too much and can be deterring our students from wanting to take part.
5. What lies ahead for you after this academic year?
I’d like to continue in encouraging students to meaningfully participate in quality assurance processes. It’s something you only know about from working in this environment so I hadn’t considered it before!
Thanks to Kerry 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.