10 Sep 2020

Interview with Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland President

In this interview, we talk to Matt Crilly, the new President of NUS Scotland for 2020-21. A student of History at the University of Strathclyde, Matt went from being a class rep, to a faculty rep and finally to President of the Strathclyde Students’ Union for two years.

1. Congratulations on taking up your post as President of NUS Scotland. And what a year for it! What’s the challenge for student engagement in our sector as you see it, given the pandemic?

Thank you! I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work on behalf of students, alongside sparqs for the next two years.

The consequences of the pandemic on students at Scotland’s colleges and universities means that student engagement has never been more important. When the crisis hit, there was a real danger that institutions would move so quickly in their emergency response that they might forget to include students in their contingency plans. Thankfully, this mistake, where it did occur, was quickly reversed. It became clear very early on that student reps were pivotal in helping institutions make key decisions and communicate large changes in accessible ways to the student body.

Communicating with students has changed in light of the pandemic, and even students’ associations have been left reviewing their methods of student engagement. The tried and tested face-to-face engagement methods we have used in student engagement, in training and upskilling student reps and facilitating student democracy just won’t work in the current circumstances. It is so important that we innovate, ensuring engagement is exciting and relevant, if we are to avoid students suffering from the dreaded Zoom fatigue.

2. And do you have any sense of what that innovation, that new method of engagement, might look like?

One time, as Student President, I was in a meeting with my University where they asked me what the experience of students had been in light of an assessment policy change. Unsure on how students had experienced the shift, I asked the committee to pause on the agenda point and revisit it later in the agenda. Meanwhile, I posed the question to my 4,000 Strathclyde student friends on Facebook. An hour passed, and we returned to the agenda point, by which time I had garnered the views of 744 students and was able to effectively communicate their experience.

Digital platforms offer massive opportunities for student engagement, and we should embrace the radical potential offered by social media. It has been great, particularly since COVID, to see so many student officers utilising this potential.

Quality online content is important too, though. Students’ associations are always strapped for cash, not least now. However, if budgets permit, I believe priority should be given to purchasing microphones, cameras and technology that will allow unions to deliver high quality content to students. When students are used to Google, we can’t be the Ask Jeeves!

3. How does your view of the COVID-19 impact differ from the objectives you had when you won your election? Do you still have other priorities for education aside from the issues thrown up since lockdown, and how much do you think they can still be a part of your year’s work?

I was elected just before lockdown, on a key manifesto commitment to campaign for free public transport for students. This is undoubtedly still a major priority long term, however, most students are learning in their kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms, the last thing a lot of them want to do – if they can avoid it – is step onto a bus!

COVID has meant a rapid shift in my priorities. The pandemic has thrown up enormous challenges to students and exposed some of the problems ingrained in the system already. Many students have found the jobs they relied upon have disappeared, their family’s income has declined and some have struggled to access digital education. I’m worried about a cost of learning crisis going into the next academic year as student support fails to meet the most basic needs.

It goes without saying, our learning is likely to look completely different online too. There is a massive role for students and staff to play in ensuring online learning is high quality. Additionally, there is a really important discussion for us to have in the forthcoming year, where we must strike the right balance between maintaining academic standards and fairly supporting students through an unprecedented pandemic.

4. One of your first tasks over the summer has been meeting officers, albeit virtually – including at our That’s Quality! events for education officers. What’s your sense of what their role will be like at an institutional level, and how do you see NUS Scotland supporting them?

This forthcoming year is going to be unlike any we have ever seen and that comes with lots of opportunities, but also its fair share of challenges. Education has been totally transformed, and with such a quick transformation there is going to be some teething difficulties to keep on top of. Like superheroes, education officers will be jumping from issue to issue helping students through their challenges. On an institutional level, it is pivotal that there is a good relationship between education officers and their university or college, to ensure a quick resolution to student worries.

Undoubtedly, many of the challenges students and education officers will confront will be national or systemic problems and that is where NUS comes in! Through NUS, we come together as student unions and lobby government and sector bodies collectively.

There’s a massive opportunity for students to create real change and student reps truly never have been more important!

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Thanks to Matt 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.

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