In this interview, we talk to Billy Docherty, a student of psychology at The Open University. Although based in Scotland, he is active at a UK level within the Open University Students’ Association – he is a Faculty Association Representative (FAR) for the Faculty of Arts and Social Science (FASS) and has been involved in various other rep roles, working groups and student engagement initiatives at the university.
1. Firstly, briefly tell us your story of education, and what got you into representation.
I struggled in school, especially with English and Maths. My main focus was on cooking, which I followed up as a career. I attended local college and did my City & Guilds in catering. Over the years I have taken courses and achieved in accounts (eventually), sign language and deaf awareness. My career was lost due to an accident at work. Over the years I developed severe depression and anxiety, linked to my spinal injury and this is what led me to the OU. I was diagnosed with two forms of dyslexia at the start of my OU journey and now with the support form SAAS I am progressing though my learning journey, achieving 240 credits so far towards my honours degree in Psychology.
I have always volunteered in some format in the local community but due to health I had to stop this. Joining the OU, my tutor suggested I contacted the Students’ Association as a way of building confidence. Though at the start I made it clear I was not getting too deeply involved, two years later I found myself making a campaign video and standing for election for the central executive committee, and was elected as FASS FAR. As part of my volunteering and my elected role I serve on various levels of governance committees, making sure the student voice is there, listened to and, most of all, respected.
2. A few years ago we interviewed the then OUSA President Ruth Tudor, and she spoke about the challenges of communicating through mainly electronic means. Does that same challenge exist for you and other current reps?
Personally, technology does not like me, it knows I have a fear and it plays on it! Since taking up my roles I have learnt a lot about how to use things like social media. I try to keep as active as I can, making sure the students I represent know exactly what I am doing and also guide me in what issues are important to them. The good thing about this electronic communication means I have it there to check on if need be – the older I get, the more the memory is slipping.
3. One of the online mechanisms used are Student Consultation Panels. How do they work?
There is a call out once a year for students from across the University who wish to participate in consultation forums. This involves accessing discussion forums and sharing their thoughts, ideas and understanding of various topics and questions. Recently we held a consultation in FASS, asking students about their experience in relation to TMA (Tutor Marked Assessments). We wanted to know what feedback was good or bad, as well what they would do to improve this process. I led the Forum with two other student representatives, with an associate lecturer overviewing. As a result of two weeks consultation, I have now prepared a thematic report, which is now with senior staff in the Faculty. This will be placed on the Forum as part of closing the feedback loop to students. In a few months a final “you said, we did” report will be posted by the Faculty.
4. You’ve been involved in various feedback and engagement tools – and even created OUSA’s new “Speakeasy” initiative with the senior management. Tell us a bit about your hopes for what that can achieve.
FASS Speakeasy was an idea I had when standing for election. I heard a lot from students about how they feel disconnected from the Faculty and University at times. This is mainly because the main campus is based in Milton Keynes. This means the majority of students never get the chance to meet senior staff.
I drafted up a proposal and sent it to the Faculty Executive Dean, explaining my idea to take the senior staff on tour around the country to meet students and to answer their questions face-to-face. I was lucky as he loved the idea and we have been working on getting ready for the launch of the first Speakeasy in Edinburgh in March 2020, then on to Belfast in May 2020. It is less about what I can achieve with this and more about the giving students the opportunity to share their ideas and thoughts in relation to the support they require and how to build a stronger community. The senior staff will be in attendance to make up a panel that students can question and raise issues with. Questions will not be submitted in advance or screened, hence why it’s a Speakeasy.
5. What’s next for you after your current degree? And what have you taken from being a rep in terms of experiences and skills?
At present I am aiming to carry on to do an MA in Fitness Psychology, working with adults with acquired disabilities. This fits into my own personal experience. Being a student rep has really given me back a lot of the confidence I had lost. I love the role and love working with the students. I have various ideas and projects coming to life over the remaining part of my elected term, in which I have been so lucky to have the support of the students’ association volunteers, elected members and our staff team. Even doing the recent student consultation forum allowed me to produce a proper report for senior staff. This is a skill I gained though my degree and up until now I have received very positive feedback about the report. Also, this piece of work has highlighted issues that the University is going to address, showing that the student voice is being taking seriously.
Thanks to Billy 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.