In this interview, we talk to Dr Luke Millard, Dean of Teaching and Learning at Abertay University. He began this role in July 2020, and previously worked at Birmingham City University where he led activities that focused on academic staff development; student development, engagement and employability. He has written widely on student engagement, and has particular interest in transitions, first year experience and employability.
1. On a basic level, what does student engagement mean to you? And how has your take on the concept evolved over time?
I have been fortunate enough to be significantly involved in this work since 2008 when only a few universities were using the phrase ‘student engagement’. At that time, I was working as Head of Student Engagement at Birmingham City University, where we saw engagement as a possible vehicle for improving the sense of community across a multi-campus university. Winning the Times Higher Education award for outstanding support for students seemed to convince the institution of the value of the work and it became mainstreamed. We had moved from a bunch of mavericks to something that was to become integrated into all aspects of the university’s operations.
The exciting thing was to see this blossom across the sector. Key moments saw engagement become embedded within key policy documents. Quality Assurance Agency codes of practice were developed that would guide institutional practice and any claim to define or constrain student engagement vanished as academics and students across the UK reinvented it within their own contexts.
In 2008, Exeter University and Birmingham City University were the mavericks, testing and promoting a concept that was new, that genuinely engaged the student voice in academic development. I saw a constant flow of visiting institutions from the UK and further afield as they sought to better understand the concept. The great change is that I now seek inspiration from colleagues across the world in this regard as they make engagement ‘normal’ and stretch it to meet new challenges.
2. And how has student engagement stood up to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic? We’re aware of a range of practice, from students being deeply involved in the huge changes to learning and teaching through to decisions being made at lightning speed with little student input. What is your assessment of the past few months?
There is no hiding from the fact that the past few months have been challenging for students, staff and institutions. In all honesty, I believe that I have witnessed a balance trying to be made between pragmatism and idealism. In those institutions where student engagement and voice is effectively integrated, the student voice has been listened to and it has helped to define the new student experience. At my own institution the Students’ Association’s involvement within the Crisis Management Team, that has led our activity and response during the crisis, is wholly appropriate and signals a strength of partnership. I am not assured that such an approach is common.
We have not been set a great example of effective change management by the UK government and I think that this has had a significant impact across society and our students. The confusing messages from government and the lack of ownership of problems and to hold their hands up and admit mistakes, has led to a significant reduction in trust for public bodies. I think this carried over to universities and has made students and parents sceptical about what is being pronounced by their university.
I think it has also increased the importance of internal communications within universities, which has the reputation for being less than perfect. The diversity of messages that may come from a well-meaning academic to a stressed student, versus the actual facts, often leads to further difficulty and the letter to the local newspaper. However, I have been encouraged by the ownership that staff now seem to take around student issues. A recent student pulse survey at Abertay showed that students are feeling more connected to academic staff than they do to their peers. Obviously, the latter issue is concerning on one level, as ‘teaching bubbles’ restrict student interactions with peers, but the personalisation of learning through smaller group sizes and the lecturers face on the laptop, seemingly only speaking to that one student, seems to have had an impact on student perceptions around collegiality with staff. There is undoubtedly an intriguing research project there.
3. It can’t have been easy starting a new job and joining a new university in the midst of all this. What is your sense of how student engagement looks and feels, not just in your new role, but in the Scottish sector more widely?
The fact that I undertook the interview for my new role in my slippers as I virtually beamed into Dundee is probably a good place to start and indicates the strangeness of the whole situation. However, the welcome I have received from both staff and students has made the transition relatively easy.
Many folks working in England have for many years cast an envious eye across the border to the collaborative nature of the higher education sector in Scotland and the early move to enhancement rather than assurance. Indeed, I recall attending a sparqs event in the early 2010s where you launched your partnership approach to learning and teaching awards. This approach was transplanted to Birmingham and I am sure it was replicated elsewhere.
The issue for me is that I have arrived from an institution where the partnership with the Students’ Union was so embedded and so normal, you expect that approach to be everywhere. At my new home, the relationship is different, but that doesn’t mean that it is better or worse. With spargs’ help we are working together to craft a new and visionary Student Partnership Agreement that I expect to challenge both partners over the coming years. I think that is the point: it should challenge, it shouldn’t feel safe and comfortable. For me, partnership is about working together and feeling empowered to challenge so that we can collectively improve the student experience within and outwith the university.
4. And what are your priorities as you continue to settle into your role at Abertay? Can we look beyond the pandemic yet? And is there a sense of what student engagement in quality should look like in the world we now find ourselves in?
We have to look beyond the pandemic and embrace the learning that the situation has delivered to organisations, staff and students. At Abertay, we are embarking on a consultative review with staff and students around the future of learning and teaching. The sector has undergone a five-year change management project in the space of a few months. We have all made mistakes, but we have also uncovered jewels that we need to retain and build our new offer around.
I also do not feel that everything pre-COVID was in disrepair. Where student engagement practices were working they should be retained, but I do think that the move to embrace technology and make it part of the core offer rather than seeing it on the periphery will have an impact. From an engagement perspective I am interested to see how students’ associations and class reps embrace that technology to enable all students to engage rather than those who just turn up for the student voice forum.
If we recognise that learning and teaching will evolve through lessons learnt through the pandemic, it would be very disappointing if the way in which we engage with student representation and voice did not also grow and change. The majority of students at widening participation universities are commuters, live at home and focus on learning activities, not social activities. As a partnership, we need to get better at hearing that voice, and the now common technologies with which we all engage may provide a vehicle to promote that particularly important voice. Perhaps I shall leave that as the next challenge for us all to address.
Thanks to Luke 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.