In this interview, we talk to Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, a Research Fellow at The University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Academic Development. She is on a six month fellowship from Australia, having worked previously at the University of Queensland.
1. Could you start by telling us a bit about how you developed your interest in student engagement and the work you’ve previously done in Australia?
I was a student at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, for eight years. I originally got into student engagement because it was an employment opportunity – working as a research assistant in the central learning and teaching unit, and from there I got into exploring the notion of Students as Partners.
That role involved lots of different work, including curriculum review, work on graduate attributes, and within Students as Partners I co-led a systematic literature review, led workshops nationally and internationally, presented at conferences, and published journal articles.
2. You’re currently on a six-month Fellowship at Edinburgh University’s Institute for Academic Development (IAD). Can you tell us about the focus of your work there, and how that came about?
I met Cathy Bovill, a member of the team at IAD, at a workshop last year. We were co-facilitating, and it was such a generative experience we said we’d look for other collaborative opportunities. The Australian Government runs a programme called Endeavour to facilitate international collaboration, and at that time I was employed by my university to co-lead the design of a new institution-wide Students as Partners programme (you can read more about that in this article). So, the processes and challenges of scaling up partnership to the institutional level was at the forefront of my mind, so that was the focus of my fellowship application.
3. Why do you think the link between student engagement and academic development is important, for both staff and students?
Research shows that student engagement has benefits, not just for students, but for academics and professionals, and we can’t ignore that. I’d argue that one of the best ways of promoting student engagement best practice is through academic development. When working with academics in development spaces, it’s their practices that will influence how students engage with learning, and each positive change in teaching practice can have an influence on institutional culture.
For instance, if you have a workshop with fifty academics and only half improve their student engagement practice as a result, that’s still twenty-five classrooms, say with 100 students in each, that’s 2,500 students who potentially have benefited from a single workshop. That is critical if the goal is to promote meaningful experiences for students.
4. And do you think students see that connection?
Not as much as they should, but that’s not the fault of students – traditional institutional hierarchy means that what happens in academic spaces excludes students in ways that I would argue is unconstructive.
5. How do you solve that?
Student-staff partnership is one primary area of addressing that. There’s research that shows that partnerships can lead to increased empathy and awareness of others. For example, students realising how much work goes into making a good tutorial, or staff who previously had no idea how much goes on in students’ lives that’s different from how it was for them as students. That sort of conversation lets students see under the hood, and that increase in empathy is important to build a community of learners that is inclusive rather than divided.
6. That presumably speaks to the idea of culture. You can have all the great surveys and effective structures and rep roles, but if people at a human level aren’t engaging, then it won’t work.
Absolutely. Foundationally, partnership and better engagement has the capacity to humanise. When you’re not just a blank face among 500 students, when you’re someone staff are having coffee with – problem-solving with, addressing a shared issue, that is a humanising process.
7. What are the differences between how student engagement is defined and prioritised in Scotland and Australia? What could each country learn from the other?
Good question! I can’t speak for Australia or Scotland broadly, so this is only my perspective. One reason to come to Scotland was student engagement and partnership, where the UK is much further ahead on taking an institutional approach. In Australia there are thousands of amazing practitioners at the course level, but the UK has longer history of promoting engagement at an institutional level – and it’s that scaling up that I am looking at in my research. I’m hoping to bring that back to Australia – how do you do that institutional level engagement, make it sustainable, inclusive, and so on. The more I talk to sparqs and others here, the more I see the UK has a stronger advocacy-driven rep system that is better supported here than in Australia. I think we can learn a lot from those coherent approaches.
8. We were fascinated to hear your talk at the RAISE conference in Sheffield in September, in which you described partnership through a feminist lens. Can you explain a bit about this?
This is an area of work in the partnership field that, to my knowledge, is quite new. Partnership is evolving and increasingly now people are using different theoretical lenses look at, not just how and what, but also why. I wrote an article using a feminist lens and we argue that feminism and partnership share radical processes that examine power inequalities, with women and students both being traditionally excluded, and staff and men being better supported by their respective systems of the patriarchal institutions. Feminism has been around for a lot longer and is activist and advocacy focussed, and partnership as a movement could learn a huge amount from those activities and ways of thinking.
9. Are there lessons for how we engage with other minority groups who traditionally have less power? Student Engagement for All is the theme of the sparqs conference in March 2019. How do you make student engagement/partnerships accessible for all?
The research that I presented at RAISE was an analysis of authors of partnership literature. Out of around 200 authors, 70% were women, and 76% of lead authors were women. That compares with around 25-30% in STEM, for example. People who author partnership literature are disproportionately women – so there’s something happening here that enables women to amplify their voices and take on leadership roles. The other women with whom I did that research found partnership such a nourishing space and that inspired the work I presented. The argument we made was that engaging more people more consistently and equitably can benefit everyone, regardless of gender, because you learn to critique oppressive power structures.
I can’t speak to the experiences of ethnic minorities, and there’s not enough research on LGBTI+ groups in partnership, but as someone who identifies as queer I always find partnership spaces more accepting: I feel more comfortable being openly gay, than in some of the other disciplinary cultures in which I have worked. I would imagine that if partnership is enacted authentically based on those principles of respect and reciprocity that aim to critically examine power, then someone who has experienced oppression will benefit in a way that is different from the broader institutional environment that privileges those who are already privileged.
Thanks to Lucy 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.