In this interview, we talk to Megan Brown, Academic Engagement Co-ordinator at Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA). Alongside her role at EUSA, Megan sits on QAA's Student Advisory Committee and sparqs' University Advisory Group.
1. Tell us a bit about your job. Given the range of academic engagement activity undertaken by EUSA, it must be pretty varied!
It certainly is! The overall remit of my role is to lead the Students’ Association’s involvement in initiatives and projects related to academic matters. This includes learning and teaching, quality, and the provision of academic representation for undergraduate and postgraduate students across The University of Edinburgh. I have particular responsibility for student representation and engagement at a college, university and national level; a key part of this is my role as the staff support for our Vice President Education.
In practice, this means that my role includes a whole host of different elements. Alongside my colleagues in the Representation and Democracy team, I coordinate the provision of ongoing support, development and training for College, School and Programme representatives throughout the year. A key part of my role is working with the Vice President Education to influence, shape and create policy at The University of Edinburgh, and so I spend a lot of time collating and analysing data from student feedback and undertaking relevant research to inform and drive change at the University. To turn this evidence into policy, I attend and contribute to a number of committees and working groups at the University, including three of our four Senate Committees. I am also expected to stay up-to-date with relevant academic issues within the institution, as well as externally at a Scottish and UK level, in order to provide briefings and updates to reps on issues which may affect students at Edinburgh.
2. What projects are you working on at the moment?
This week, I’m working with the University to recruit student reviewers for our Taught and Postgraduate Programme Reviews. We’ve been jointly recruiting in this way for a number of years now and it’s an area of partnership working with the University which I believe works particularly effectively. We send the opportunity to be a Student Reviewer to our existing student reps and then invite the shortlisted candidates to interview before selecting the successful reviewers.
Throughout the year I oversee the Edinburgh Award for Representing Students, a reward and recognition scheme established centrally by the University Careers Service with multiple strands operating in different departments and services across the institution. The Edinburgh Award is designed to recognise a student’s participation in extra-curricular activities and, in our strand’s case, involves choosing skills to work on throughout the year which students identify as being beneficial to the rep role. The final part of the Award is happening in March, where student reps reflect on their year in the role and consider how their skills have improved as a result of being a rep and taking part in the Award.
At the end of the academic year, I collate information from several departments at the Students’ Association in order to create Annual School Reports for each School. These include information on all Students’ Association activity within the School for the preceding academic year, including Student Rep statistics, Peer Learning and Support schemes, academic society activity, and the key topics which students in each School attend the Advice Place to discuss. I created and disseminated the reports to Heads of School and Directors of Teaching for the first time last year and they have been received very positively. We have therefore decided to embed the Reports as a part of annual Students’ Association practice and to share these reports at College and University level as well.
Over the summer, I will be continuing work on a couple of Student Rep projects that I am currently undertaking with the University. We have recently moved to a Programme Rep system, which has prompted a need to revisit how students and Reps can most effectively communicate with one another. This project is currently at a scoping stage, for which I am part of a small working group identifying some potential platforms which offer a way for reps and students to communicate more easily. Alongside this, I am considering with the University ways to improve Student-Staff Liaison Committees and how to create processes whereby issues which cannot be dealt with at a School level can be escalated or actioned to a more relevant University department.
Over the summer I’m also keen to look at how we are sharing relevant data with our student representatives, including both quantitative and qualitative data. Through a joint pilot project with the University, we have already begun to consult with existing student reps on this issue. We gave School Reps in three Schools access to student survey data (NSS, PTES and PRES) and asked them which information of this kind they found most useful for their roles and in what formats this information would be most useful to receive. The long-term objective of this project is to provide all new School Reps with useful and accessible student survey data during their initial training and to support them in using this information most effectively to make change in their roles.
3. EUSA was one of the first students’ associations to introduce student-led teaching awards. How important are these awards as a tool for building partnership with the university?
I’m really proud of our Teaching Awards, which are now in their 10th year. Working in a Students’ Association, you don’t always have as many chances as you’d like to pass on the more positive feedback from students to the University, and the Teaching Awards gives us a chance to do this on a large scale. We receive between 2000 and 3000 nominations every year and this gives us an incredibly rich set of qualitative data that we can share with the University. Every staff member that gets nominated receives a posted letter with their nomination comments and a Teaching Awards pin badge – we want to make sure that every single person who is nominated gets recognition and not just those who are shortlisted.
I believe that the Teaching Awards are valuable in and of themselves as a reward and recognition scheme for exceptional teaching staff, but they are also a powerful contributor to discussions around teaching quality and the challenging question of what makes good teaching. In 2016, the Students’ Association secured a Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme grant from the University. With this funding, we hired a postgraduate student, Kieran Bunting, for six months, to undertake research on the Teaching Awards data. This research identified key themes in student perceptions of excellence in teaching. The report also included recommendations for the University, and senior staff were very receptive to the findings of the data analysis. We’re keen to see what else we can do with the data in the future and to continue to work collaboratively with Schools and the wider University on projects that use student feedback to help improve teaching.
4. You’re a regular contributor to sparqs’ Academic Representation Co-ordinators’ network (ARC), where practitioners in similar roles to yours get together to discuss common areas of work. Not that we’re fishing shamelessly for compliments, but how valuable is ARC to you as a professional?
ARC has been hugely beneficial to me in my role. It was particularly valuable when I first started working at the Students’ Association, as the group introduced me to topics which I hadn’t encountered before. It’s also been fantastic to have a ready-made network of people doing your job around Scotland; it’s reassuring to be able to talk about challenges you’ve identified and hear that others in the sector are working on the same issues. ARC also allows me to hear the latest updates from Students’ Associations around Scotland and learn from their best practice. I would also like to give a shout out to the sparqs’ conference and the ‘That’s Quality’ event, both of which are also fantastic opportunities to learn more about topics in Scottish HE and to network with staff in the sector.
5. You were recently in Ireland as an external member of a review panel. It’s one of a number of ways in which we’ve seen co-operation between Irish and Scottish HE on student engagement, thanks to our work with NStEP (National Student Engagement Programme). Tell us about your experience there.
I was so pleased to be invited to sit on a review panel for the School of Humanities at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) at the beginning of this year. The School Review process has two parts – a strategic review at School level and a programmatic review. The review covers many elements of the teaching and learning experience, including strategic direction, student recruitment and progression, School resources, community engagement and the student experience.
I found the experience of taking part in a quality review useful in several ways. Firstly, in my current role I support students who take part in our own internal reviews and this was a chance to experience the process first-hand. Seeing the experience ‘from the other side’ has given me insight that I didn’t have previously on the review process and on what support and advance information will be most useful for our own student reviewers.
Additionally, even though WIT is a different institution to Edinburgh in many ways, I was able to learn from their best practice and take this with me back to Scotland. For example, whilst at WIT we had some interesting conversations about effective support and guidance for students before they go on placement and I’m keen to now have these conversations in an Edinburgh context. It was also great to be able to pass on some of the practice we are proud of at EUSA to WIT and to establish positive relationships with colleagues from outside the UK.
I would encourage anyone who gets the chance, to take part in similar reviews, not just in the UK but in other countries as well. We’re rightfully proud of Scottish Higher and Further Education and our student engagement practices, but there is also much to learn from other systems of tertiary education and particularly from institutions that may initially seem to differ significantly from your own.
Thanks to Megan 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.