22 Feb 2021

Interview with Kevin Sinclair, University of the Highlands and Islands

In this interview, we talk to Kevin Sinclair, Student Engagement Manager at the University of the Highlands and Islands. His role involves activities related to engagement, student development and widening access. Prior to joining the university, he had a number of roles in business.

1. What does student engagement mean to you in a distributed tertiary institution?

The university is a partnership of twelve colleges, many of which have a number of campuses. The challenge is to ensure that our students feel part of a larger institution as well as their local college. The nature of our institution can result in benefits to engagement. Smaller classes allow for a more personal learning experience, and it is easier to build a sense of community in our smaller partners. Genuine partnership working in developing the educational experience can naturally flow from building personal relationships.

2. How has this changed during the pandemic? It’s interesting to note UHI’s new COVID-19 Student Panel, which you are using to get student feedback on the changes you’ve made during the pandemic. But equally, you’re already used to learning, teaching and engaging through digital means. So how much is different?

The digital aspect of teaching and engagement was already well developed prior to COVID, so it was a relatively easier task to convert everything to online systems. However, the pandemic has focused our minds on considering how we undertake our work. We are working with students to better understand how students wish to engage and learn with us in the future. By bringing flexibility to learning we can help them manage other aspects of their lives, such as employment, home responsibilities and personal development. We have an opportunity to retain and develop positive changes that were introduced as a result of this pandemic. The changes have also removed any differences between our online and on-campus students and created a level playing field. Campuses will reopen, but we wish to retain the culture of those participating feeling every bit as much part of the experience.

3. UHI recently updated its Student Partnership Agreement (SPA). Again, was this just the same process or did the document feel different from past ones because of the pandemic?

We took this as an opportunity to bring about some quite significant changes to our SPA. We changed the number of projects in Part B, for example. We also took the opportunity to revise student representation structures and methods that class reps use to work. There has tended to be a difference between the effectiveness of reps on campus and those studying at a distance, with the later feeling less connected. Everyone now feels they are on a level playing field. While the document itself looks very similar to previous years, we are working to ensure that everyone feels just as much a part of this community of learning that we are building.

4. Tell us more about why you did not select the usual small number of part B projects but wanted to include a wide variety of current topics of partnership working. What inspired this change?

Rather than setting three areas for partnership working between the university and the students’ association as we have always done, we instead listed all areas of partnership working. This will avoid a somewhat artificial focus on three areas, whereas in reality we work in partnership in many areas. However, we did wish to continue to involve students on what they would like to see occur, and provide an element of target setting to keep us accountable. To do this the students’ association have introduced a dedicated online event for students to set a number of ‘SMART’ targets for us to work towards during the year.

5. At the same time, UHI has also recently published a new Student Engagement Strategy. Tell us about this and why you feel it does something different to the SPA.

While the SPA sets out how the university and students’ association work in partnership together, the strategy provides a vision. It outlines what we want to achieve, and the methods we will use to reach those goals. It is supplemented with an action plan. In a sense, the SPA tells of our commitment to partnership working, and areas of work. The strategy gives a direction of travel and sets out how we will achieve those aims. If we have the SPA right, it will change more slowly over time, as it should be a reference to how we work in partnership. The strategy, in comparison, gives us a direction for the next few years, and will be revised periodically, setting in place a process for development.

Thanks to Kevin 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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