8 Oct 2020

Interview with Ian McCartney, Perth College UHI

In this interview, we talk to Ian McCartney, Clerk to the Board of Management at Perth College UHI – a role which he started in summer 2019. Ian comes from a students’ associations background, having spent over twenty years in various roles across the UK, including Membership Services Manager and Chief Executive at the University of Strathclyde Students’ Association and Interim Chief Executive at Aberdeen University Students’ Association.

1. Firstly, how have you seen student engagement as a concept develop over the years?

The idea of it being a concept rather than reality is interesting! I’m old enough to remember when students had no say in learning and teaching – it was done to them, and the idea of a co-curricular approach would have been laughed at. Meanwhile, “student voice” was about elections once a year, dealing with elected officers at meetings, and seeing the students’ association as something enshrined in law and therefore something to work around, not work with.

This led to an inconsistency of message within the rep structure – should management listen to what class reps say, or senior officers say? This contradiction meant the student voice could often be ignored, whether by accident or not.

I was an elected officer back in the early 1990s and wouldn’t have believed the opportunities to engage that exist now, which are not just available but expected. Students at different levels have a say, formally and informally, and if they believe something could be improved they can do something about it. Back in the day you’d have been lucky if reps understood the role and how you could make an impact, with conversations about the canteen rather than the direction of learning.

2. So what changed?

Students’ associations back then were doing lots of good work on student enterprise and activities, and institutions could see the value of students being involved in their own development, for example through presentation skills or negotiation. NUS’s National Student Learning Programme allowed officers to learn to train and support each other to a high level, and that had a direct impact on things like course rep training.

Put all that together, and suddenly you have students’ associations doing more than serving beer to their members, and making a proper difference to people’s lives. The soft skills being developed through training course reps and others then lead to the question of what more we can do with these reps.

3. And how’s it changed now in recent months, given the significant impact of the lockdown and pandemic on rep structures and feedback systems?

My initial response is we don’t yet fully know because, for instance, course rep training processes for the new academic year will be delivered online. Dealing with elected officers here has been good, we’ve been able to have handover and so on, but it’s hard to get a feel on how that broader engagement, and the impacts of the new methodology, is bedding in. When the lockdown happened, we were getting close to the end of term and the end of teaching, so it wasn’t as big an impact as it might have been had initial lockdown taken place in, say, November. So we’re still in “suck it and see” mode to an extent, and the impact on the association producing their programme for the year ahead is going to be very different.

What the lockdown has done is demonstrate that flexibility is necessary for any organisation, especially colleges. We don’t know if we still need to change things at the drop of a hat, so we can't program processes or meetings in one fixed way, and how do you ensure opportunities for engagement to thrive in these circumstances?

What we were, and continue to be, most concerned with is those students who weren’t emailing, seeking clarification, or who didn’t feel the college was a resource for support – while the college has been very proactive in terms of providing support and resources to ensure as many students as possible have digital access, this is a huge challenge across the sector and there’s always a worry for those who slip through the net.

4. You have extensive experience of students’ associations. Why do we need them? There is so much high quality research being undertaken into student views, through surveys, forums, focus groups and so on, and staff are engaging more and more with students’ views at all levels of institutions. So what does an autonomous organisation for students bring to its members, to institutions and to the learning experience that other mechanisms can’t?

Student voice is more than student views. A questionnaire is one thing, but is removed from the opportunity to talk and debate with like-minded individuals about change. Plus, the opportunities for skills development in filling out a survey is pretty negligible: opinions are formed but you’re not doing much with that as a student.

Also, institutional change can be an iterative process, with progression made through gradual, minor changes. Student voice by petition or survey can create a message of “we want this” and an institution might simply say “no, we’re not doing that”. But an organised students’ association can be more subtle and look at particular incremental steps. And ultimately, if the student voice isn’t student led, is it meaningful and anything more than lip service?

5. Although Perth College is a partner of UHI, you’ve moved from a university background to a college, and from working in SAs to an institutional role. How have you enjoyed the shift to a new perspective on student engagement? Is there even a big difference given the importance of student engagement to all aspects of the sector?

I think that’s difficult to answer, having worked for many university students’ associations and being in my first college and first institutional role. But the biggest difference between here and other places I’ve worked is that I’m genuinely amazed by the sense of community – it’s the friendliest place I’ve worked. I’m speculating that’s about scale, because the college is a more compact organisation where you see the same folk around more than at a multi-site or large institution.

There can still be a disconnect – I work along a corridor (well, under normal circumstances anyway!) that students don’t often go down – but staff are heavily involved in student issues, and the students’ association. I detect a sense that engagement isn’t a buzzword but genuinely means something, that it is part of the culture to think about what students think. And the size means you can perhaps form opinions more quickly because you’re closer to hearing others’ views.

That said, there’s clearly more than one type of student. Even with our relatively small cohort compared to some universities, we have degrees and evening classes, part-time and full-time students, and those regularly learning on campus versus those studying online. How you get genuine engagement from the different groups is a challenge – and that can only be exacerbated when there’s a limited amount of opportunity for face-to-face interaction. Our students’ association is used to dealing with these issues, but it must be challenging to get that level of viewpoint across to say “this is the student view at Perth College”. That’s the same for any students’ association anywhere – to demonstrate that the association represents the genuine voice of the students of that institution.

6. And so what do you feel good student engagement in a Board looks like? How do you support effective student engagement across the range of very formal board structures and the all-important informal conversations and relationships?

Student experience is the number one cornerstone of what we do, and therefore a priority for boards; so as long as it is within a sustainable framework, and is referred to on a constant basis, engagement will happen.

The ideal scenario is that student members are seen as board members rather than students – but that can be a challenge for all sides, because while there is training, it’s hard to disassociate having met with course reps in a meeting one minute and then suddenly that same student is no longer a rep! That’s especially the case when the student place on a board of management might be just one line in a wider job description. Unlike independent board members, who will apply specifically to join the board, student officers usually stand for election to improve people’s lives, not to sit on the board. You’re doing your job as a student officer but then at 5pm you go into the board meeting and have to switch that off. That’s where the training and induction and support comes in. This is a potential barrier we need to reflect on.

7. This must be a particular challenge when working in lockdown and remotely.

There’s a general point with new board members, in that you’ve not met anyone at the outset. Meeting for the first time online versus face-to-face is different, and it’s about the opportunity to read body language, for instance, judging whether there is a positive or negative driver behind a question.

Having had recent conversations with new board members, including new student members, about the student member’s role on the board, it’s clear you’re not there as a student representative, and no one expects you to have the entirety of the student body consulted, but you’re effectively an “example student”. It’s perhaps harder for student officers than other board members, but even other board members do slip into assumptions about them being a student officer, rather than a student, in the meeting.

8. How does that link to your role as secretary?

Part of my role is to be available to chat to members about papers, and to ensure that everyone – not least student members - goes into the meeting with as much knowledge, information and background as possible, and to help them understand the process and use it effectively in their role. For instance, I quickly learned last year from student members about the difficulty with acronyms, so we created a list of the more common ones that we use in the college.

There’s a real opportunity here for student officers who are members of boards to use the board secretaries as a conduit to be able to take more of a proactive role in board matters. Going back full circle to the idea of learning and teaching being done to students, I think there’s still a risk that board meetings are “done” to student members, rather than them being co-owners; the ideal scenario is that the board is used by student members as a mechanism, not to replace representative channels, but to make sure that the student experience is core to what is being delivered at board level.

Here at Perth College we’ve now got students involved in finance and audit committees, which I understand is not yet happening everywhere. Part of making that happen is challenging in terms of training and support, but as a former chief executive of students’ associations I can understand the pressures of student officers and can support them accordingly.

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Thanks to Ian 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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