In this interview, we talk to Stewart Squire, Democratic Support & Policy Co-ordinator at Dundee University Students’ Association (DUSA). Stewart’s role involves a range of support for student engagement, and he previously worked at the Abertay University Students’ Association as Democratic and Campaigns Co-ordinator, having come from a Scottish Government policy team. Stewart has also worked for UK Border Agency and is a graduate of the University of Dundee.
1. Firstly, what does student engagement mean to you? Having worked in two institutions, what do you think are the key ingredients of successful engagement?
Student engagement for me is about building a culture where students feel they can have their voices heard but also to work with staff to enhance the University experience for all.
I haven’t found the magic bullet yet but what I am starting to see is how important it is to bring it down to the local level as much as possible. I think a lot of students have real pride in their programme, department and faculty/school. At that level there can be real interest. Get that right, then there is more potential to build in higher or more distant issues and conversations which are more of a focus for students’ associations and university management.
2. Where have you seen examples of that? Have there been ways in which programmes and schools have done great things on that local level of engagement that could be shared with other areas?
Much of this thinking has developed recently for me. It was solidified with our recent election. We had our biggest turnout for years (20.4%) and there was a number of contributing factors, but one key element that emerged was the importance of our School President elections. We saw a number of Schools who have had historically low levels of engagement drive up their participation levels. As an example, our Dentistry School had historically never had a School President that focused on learning and teaching issues as their main focus; they were essentially a Society President more than anything. Last year we elected the first learning and teaching School President with one candidate and very low levels of engagement. This year we had four candidates and they had the highest voter turnout per head of population. Much of this was down to the work of the current President, Emma Ward.
This was replicated across several schools, such as Nursing & Health Sciences, where our current incumbent, Gary Jordan, had got some excellent wins for his School and it resulted in a much higher voter turnout, with three students running for the position.
3. And how has that developed over time? You’re working on the same campus you previously studied at – so what difference do you see today in cultures and approaches of student engagement compared to when you were a student?
Massive difference from when I was a student. I was the Class Rep during my time at college and when I think back to it, I barely remember ever being asked if students wanted to run for the same position at university. Executive elections at the time also made no sense to me and I had no idea who or what they were.
We still have a long way to go as some of those experiences are still the reality for some students, but it is clear that the culture on campus allows for, and encourages, a strong student voice.
4. Your university and students’ association have been exploring the engagement of distance learning students recently, and have just completed a survey to inform this. It’s all been interesting for our own project on ODL engagement. Tell us a bit about why you undertook this work and what you’ve been discovering.
The University has around 4,000 distance learning students and it is likely to be a growing portion of our student body in the coming years. The University underwent a Distance Learning Audit last academic year and representation was highlighted as an area for enhancement, which led me to organise a working group between DUSA and leads from the university.
As part of that work we ran a survey of our distance learning students and received 142 responses, which we were actually very happy with as a first attempt to engage students in this area.
Of course we have a range of students who entered distance learning for a variety of reasons and from around the world. What the survey gave us was a snapshot of how the students experienced, not only representation, but also, how they communicate their learning experience with staff and fellow students.
The group is meeting soon to discuss how we are going to collectively develop distance learning engagement in the future.
5. You’ve also been involved in our Academic Rep Co-ordinators’ (ARC) network, hosting our event in February and presenting on DUSA’s Student-Led Teaching Awards at a previous meeting. First of all, why is it important that roles like yours exist, and secondly what is the value in being able to network with similar practitioners through forums like ARC?
I think, fundamentally, roles such as mine are vital for continuity between academic years, but more importantly, to provide a guide and support mechanism for officers. Students’ associations/unions provide a fantastic opportunity for dedicated people to improve the student experience but much is expected of each officer and they have to achieve their goals within only a year, or if they are fortunate to run and win again, two years. Though in reality, looking at the academic year, they might only have nine months to make change happen.
Also, the expectations and requirements on students’ associations and officers have grown. At Dundee, our sabbs sit on nearly every major committee across the institution and need to be able to jump from thinking about international student experiences, to mental health, teaching and learning enhancement to wider community relations, and that might be within one day. Having a team of experienced staff who can help prepare them, be a sounding board, undertake key tasks and keep them on track, ensures that officers can make a difference in an intense and fast moving environment.
ARC meetings, for me, have been vital in improving my own knowledge and understanding of my role and the sector as a whole. I am lucky to have a very close team of staff and good working relationships with officers; having said that it’s very helpful to have a community of colleagues to turn to for advice, who understand what I am experiencing, in what can be a lonely environment if you don’t have the internal support.
It’s a unique environment working in a students’ association and though I used to compare it to working as a civil servant, it is very different. Being able to meet up with peers can make it easier to know you’re not alone in what can be a crazy job.
Thanks to Stewart 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.