In this interview, we talk to Kevin McStravock, who is Lead Policy Officer (Devolved Nations and Europe) with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). A graduate of Ulster University (UU), he has held various roles in the sector, including in the student movement, where he was President of UU’s students’ union before going on to serve as Deputy President and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Union of Students in Ireland. He has been National Network Chair of NStEP, Ireland’s student engagement programme and a committee member of RAISE, and last year completed the University of Winchester’s Masters in Student Engagement.
1. Let’s start at the beginning! How did you get into representative activity as a student?
My first experience as a representative was when I volunteered to be the course rep on my course. At the time, I felt like that was the sort of thing I should do at university to meet people and develop a sense of belonging – it wasn’t until I had my training that I realised how important the representative role actually was and how it fed into decision-making.
From there, I signed up to help with volunteering week and RAG week in the SU and before long, I was very much your classic ‘uber-engaged student’. When I went into final year, the University announced the closure of the School of Modern Languages which housed part of my degree (I studied a joint honours in Journalism with French) so the importance of my rep role increased significantly.
As a School Rep, I was heavily involved in discussions about the teach-out of affected courses, ensuring that the University continued to provide a high-quality experience to all students across these courses and that information was communicated transparently. I remember posing a very long list of questions to the Dean at a student rep forum and being pleasantly surprised with how willing they were to engage in conversation and take on board my feedback. I think that was a bit of a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me in regard to student representation.
2. And tell us about your journey after Ulster University. It’s interesting to note that, due to the nature of the student movement in Northern Ireland, you were able to be involved in activities and networks based in both the UK and Ireland.
Well, my time in UUSU picked up naturally from my time as an academic rep. For the first year, I served as the campus vice-president for the Coleraine campus. In addition to the closure of the School of Modern Languages, a number of other courses on the campus and across the University were being taught out. Given my experience, I led the Union’s engagement with academic reps on all affected courses and fed these through to the University’s Academic Senate and its sub-committees. I was able to build really positive relationships with a lot of the Heads of School and with the Associate Deans for Education in each of the Faculties, and to ensure that reps within affected courses felt empowered to bring forward their feedback and ideas on how to protect the student experience during the teach-out of the course.
After my term as the VP Coleraine Campus, I was elected as President of UUSU and served in this role for two terms. It was during my time as President that I was exposed to a range of UK and Irish networks through the national students’ unions and through sector bodies like QAA, where I served on their Student Strategic Advisory Committee. Working with, and learning from, other student representatives helped to build my confidence as a sabbatical officer and was instrumental in driving forward lots of the work I carried out in UU, such as the development of staff-student partnership and enhancements to the student voice systems within the University.
From there, I went on to be elected as Vice President for Academic Affairs for the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). This gave me the opportunity to represent students in third-level education across the island of Ireland and to work with students and student representatives, staff, sector bodies and politicians. Through this role, I also had the opportunity to lead USI’s work within the European Students’ Union (ESU) and to contribute to policy development across the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). My time in USI coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic so it was a real learning curve, but a fantastic opportunity to set the direction of travel and ensure that student perspectives were front and centre of the Irish higher education sector’s response to the pandemic.
3. And how easy was it to represent students at that national level during the pandemic? It was a time of some pretty rapid decision-making, so what did it mean to engage students at such a fraught time?
It was certainly not without its challenges, but it was an important opportunity to ensure student voices were central to planning and decision-making during this period. One of the key issues we grappled with was how to ensure the circumstances were taken into account in assessment for award-year students, without compromising the quality of their degrees. I worked with sector bodies in Ireland and with our member students’ unions and put together a paper that summarised the issues students were facing, and outlined the approaches being taken in other countries, particularly across the UK. Whilst decisions were taken at an institutional level, we were successful in negotiating an overall commitment among higher education institutions to ensure that students were not academically disadvantaged by the pandemic and that boards of examiners had additional discretion to reflect this.
The other key challenge was around digital teaching, learning and assessment and digital poverty. I led research among students as part of a sector-wide project convened by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) to learn more about the student experience during the initial lockdown, in order to inform planning for the new academic year. As a result of this research and additional information collected from institutions, we were able to secure additional government funding to support laptop-lending schemes and financial support for students and to allow institutions to invest in their digital infrastructure.
4. What does your current role at the QAA involve? It must be fascinating to be working across the devolved nations and the European sphere.
In my current role, I support our policy and public affairs priorities across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as supporting our engagement in pan-European work within the European Higher Education Area. This entails developing consultation responses on behalf of QAA, delivering policy updates to member networks and sector groups, supporting committees and meeting politicians, civil servants, and sector and student representatives. In the role, I have also had the opportunity to contribute to QAA’s recent review by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA). Having previously engaged in European circles as the USI lead for ESU was a huge advantage in helping me to understand the relationship between UK higher education and the European quality sphere.
Having the opportunity to work across three different devolved nations gives me the opportunity to identify similarities and differences in policy and practice across each nation, as well as spotting opportunities for collaboration. I particularly enjoy engaging with sector-wide networks and committees and getting stuck into the “wicked issues” that staff and students are grappling with in order to enhance the quality of the student experience. All three sectors have embraced an enhancement approach to quality and there is increasing appetite to learn from one another in their respective approaches to quality enhancement.
5. And what, briefly, do you think some of those “wicked issues” are? And what are the best approaches to engage students in solving them?
One of the age-old challenges faced by tertiary education institutions and sector bodies, is how to meaningfully engage students/learners in decision-making and to ensure that this is representative of the student body as a whole. Over the last few years, there has been the added dimension of the cost-of-living crisis, which perhaps highlights the need to identify barriers to engagement for underrepresented student groups. Effective engagement of students and learners in key domains like teaching and learning and quality assurance and enhancement requires a significant time commitment from students, which can be increasingly challenging as they depend on part-time employment to fund their studies.
Additionally, from the teaching, learning and assessment perspective, the need to consider the impact of artificial intelligence on student learning has been heightened by the advancement of software like ChatGPT over recent months. Academic Integrity has been a key talking point for a number of years, but the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence software shows the need for higher education to get ahead of the issue before it becomes a threat.
In both of these instances, the best approach to engaging students is about ensuring that every time we discuss these topics, students are involved, not just in identifying the potential pitfalls, but in designing the solutions to these challenges. That might also mean critically examining the spaces we hold these conversations in, to ensure they are sufficiently inclusive, for example reviewing the language we use. We might also need to look at how we remove barriers to engagement for certain groups, for example employing students as consultants so the conversations are not exclusive to those who can afford to devote the time.
6. You’ve studied the University of Winchester’s Masters in Student Engagement, as have two of sparqs’ staff, and your dissertation looked at power dynamics for students in governing bodies. What attracted you to that research topic, and how much is that shaped by your own experiences as a student officer and governor?
Across my time on the Masters programme, I researched and examined a broad range of topics in higher education, including digital learning, equality and diversity in student representation and academic integrity. The decision to explore power dynamics in governing bodies was largely driven by my personal experiences as a student governor. I served for two years on the governing body of Ulster University, and also served two years on the boards of QQI and Ireland’s National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning.
My experience across all of these boards was largely positive, but I was also conscious of the significant differences between my experience and that of the other board members I served alongside. This had often been a topic of discussion with other student representatives, so I was confident that examining this topic would generate useful observations that could inform recommendations for the sector.
7. You wrote a Wonkhe article recently about your findings, and it is noteworthy how you point to the importance of the softer power dynamics and relationship building. Can you tell us more about what you concluded?
So there were three key strands to my findings. The first was that power is at the core of decision-making in higher education. It is best understood through consideration of Pierre Bourdieu’s capital, field and habitus theories. If we think of governing body (the field) as a game of influence, then an individual’s status within the governing body is largely driven by their ability to play the game (habitus) which is in turn influenced by the perceived relevance of their social capital (such as job title, level of education, seniority) for the governing body. Students, who are normally several decades younger than the average governor and normally have limited prior experience serving on committees, are automatically disadvantaged in playing the game.
The second strand was that in order to hold influence within a governing body, individuals need to understand the ‘rules of the game’. These are rarely defined, so again, it comes down to the previous experience of individuals. What I found, was that many student governors were never taught how to engage in the governing body and found it quite intimidating to begin with, particularly in learning how to best have their voice heard within meetings. Some of the observations from participants in the study suggested that the hidden rules of a governing body can be used to control the dynamic, for example only items placed on the agenda can be discussed, but the mechanism for adding an item to the agenda is not always clearly defined.
Finally, and linked to this, was my observation that personal relationships are key to the success of students on a governing body. Building a strong relationship with key personnel, particularly the chair, secretary and senior staff, such as the principal/vice-chancellor, helped to ensure student governors were heard within meetings. My interviews suggested that this was much easier to achieve where meetings are held in-person. However, this finding also points to an over-reliance on personal relationships to underpin student engagement in higher education governance, at the expense of clear institutional strategy.
8. These dynamics at governance level are things we in sparqs are conscious of and try to address in our own work, for instance our contributions to the College Development Network’s Governance Development Programme here in Scotland. What do you think governing bodies (and others like student bodies or indeed agencies like us in sparqs) can do to further promote partnership in that sort of environment?
The first thing would be to establish meaningful student engagement in governance as one aspect of an institution-wide strategy. My research indicated that existing governance training programmes (like Advance HE’s Student Governor training and CDN’s Governance Development Programme) are valued by the students who have access to them, but that there is inconsistency in the support offered by institutions themselves. Sector training programmes should be complemented by institutional-specific training that clearly explains the governance structures that students are working within and how they can meaningfully contribute to the governance of the institution. Training for ordinary governors should also clearly explain the role of the student governors and how they can support their engagement.
The importance of personal relationships in this setting cannot be underestimated, so institutions may wish to consider establishing mentoring relationships between their student governors and some of the lay governors. The Chair has a key role to play in setting the tone in terms of engagement with student governors, but other members of the governing body can also play an important role in championing and advocating for the student voice within institutional governance.
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.