In this interview, we talk to Oisín Hassan, Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). Previously he was Vice-President (Education) at Queen’s University Belfast Student’ Union. He was recently re-elected to serve a second year in his post at USI.
1. We’ve worked with you a lot this past year on NStEP – Ireland’s National Student Engagement Programme – which you chair. Could you start by telling us a bit about the importance of student engagement in Ireland, and the difference you feel NStEP is making to the sector?
The work to create, shape, and build NStEP started a few years ago when the student movement here endorsed the idea of a national body focused on developing student partnership. USI worked closely with the Higher Education Authority (Ireland’s funding council) to create the 10 Principles of Student Engagement and a supporting report for institutions. It identified the need for institutionally led policies, but with national support - as a result NStEP was born from a partnership between USI, the HEA, and Quality and Qualifications Ireland, also known as QQI (the equivalent to the QAA).
Over the past two years NStEP has really transformed the landscape and begun to dismantle a culture that put students at arms length from decision-making. Our Students’ Unions have noticed a marked shift from trying to ensure students are around the table, to real and meaningful initiatives that build their capacity to really be a part of deliberative and evaluative discussion. NStEP’s work now is very much on building on the success of training over 2000 Class Reps, and ensuring that institutional policies change to reflect a much more activated student voice.
2. What got you involved in this to start with? How did you end up becoming education sabbatical at Queen’s?
I’ve had a long(ish) journey in the student movement. I ran for Vice President for Equality and Diversity in Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union (QUBSU) during my Masters year. My student activism was really kick-started by realising the impact students could have, and needed to have, in improving the rights of LGBTQI+ people in the North, so that role was the right fit for me at the time. The role also involved a lot of work with international students and postgraduates, and also with students with complex needs such as disability supports. I often supported the Vice President for Education with academic casework, and became increasingly interested in how student partnership could transform our work, so I ran to be the Vice President for Education and was elected.
My year as Education Officer was marked by bringing our Course Rep elections online, which required significant mapping exercise and ensuring that our Staff Student Consultative Committees (SSCCs) were fit for purpose. Ultimately we had 770 Course Rep positions up for election, and had a record engagement. After the success of reforming the Course Rep system I was ready to begin laying the groundwork for a Student Partnership Framework at Queen’s and spent the remainder of the year designing a collaborative process for creating one alongside key institutional staff. I’m proud to say that my successor worked to implement that process and just recently got the Framework to final stages of agreement, along with a significant amount of funding.
3. In Northern Ireland, students’ unions are involved in the national student bodies of both the UK and Ireland. Do you think this was an advantage to you as an officer in Queen’s in terms of, for example, moving in two networks and having double the opportunity to learn and share effective practice with others?
My experience in QUBSU stood me in good stead for when I ran to represent our students across the island. I do think having experience across the two jurisdictions of Ireland, and with the English, Scottish, and Welsh third-level education systems meant that I had a dynamic that could complement the successes and work already achieved to date in Ireland. I think I’ve been advantaged by my connections and experience outside of this jurisdiction, and it’s been a part of my own learning process navigating the challenges and differences of each region or country.
We’re very lucky here that we have a Higher Education sector that hasn’t embraced any notion of students as consumers or of an overtly marketised approach, though that’s not to say that there aren’t some tendencies in that direction. I’ve found that the values of education as a public good here as ensured that the ethos of student partnership and engagement has been very much understood and absorbed by influencers and leaders, and students have truly been able to benefit from that goodwill. In my role I’ve certainly been able to reinforce that effort by ensuring the best practices of other countries are understood and learned from.
4. Besides NStEP, what else is in store for you in your second year at USI?
I’ve spent much of my year working on developing a more inclusive national Union for postgraduate students, culminating in a Postgraduate Voice Symposium in February and the passage of a constitutional change at our annual Congress, introducing a part-time paid role on our Officer board for a new Vice President for Postgraduate Affairs. That role will take effect on July 1st, and I’m very excited to support the new VP. In the space of a year I really think we’ve gone from quite poor on postgraduate issues to being an international leader in postgraduate representation.
With a new VP in place that means I can start new projects in the year ahead. My big focus will be on bringing more Further Education students in to our membership, and developing student engagement capacity in that sector. Another large project is on democratising Apprenticeships, ensuring they have access to their national Union and Trade Unions.
I’ll also be working on a new partnership with the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, to ensure that students are proactively a part of their work. The National Forum is increasingly recognised as a really innovative organisation across Europe, and have embedded the ethos of student partnership in all that they do. Now we’re looking to move that partnership to a new phase, which is very exciting!
My final big focus for the year is a National Student Partnership Agreement, agreed with the Department for Education and Skills. The Agreement will focus on structured engagement with USI and our students, while also developing a Framework for Supporting Students’ Unions. We have much to do to ensure the value of having and supporting SUs is recognised by our diverse institutions.
Thanks to Oisin 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.