15 Nov 2023

A celebration of #sparqs20years

Thank you to everyone who joined us for our 20th birthday celebration event on the evening of Thursday 5th October 2023 ~ #sparqs20years

The event reflected on and celebrated the progress Scotland has made over the last 20 years in student engagement and the invitation was extended to those who have been involved in the work of sparqs and student engagement, both in the past and currently. We had a fantastic turnout, with over 100 guests, bringing together those who have shaped, and continue to shape, student engagement and sparqs' work over the years.

The evening was hosted by Sir Andrew Cubie, chair of the sparqs’ Trustee Board and Eve Lewis, Director. It was great to see so many people who were involved in the early days of sparqs, helping to set up the “project” as it was then, funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and managed by NUS Scotland. Always continuing to work closely with NUS, in due course sparqs developed into a more established organisation and became a separate registered charity in 2015. Eve reflected on the growth and development of the organisation over the years as its value and influence was recognised across the sector and beyond. The commitment of the SFC over the years is testament to their commitment to student engagement and this world-leading organisation, which continues to be the envy of many countries across the world.

Eve reflected on the early work of sparqs, a main focus of which was delivery of Course Rep Training (CRT) to colleges and universities by the small team, one of whom was Erica Russell-Hensens, now one of our key contacts at the SFC! Later in the evening before looking ahead to the future work of sparqs, Erica reminisced fondly on her road-trips up and down the country delivering the training. Still a key area of our work today, CRT is now delivered by our team of Associate Trainers, or in-house within institutions by their own team of Institutional Associate Trainers (trained by sparqs). The development of the scheme over the years has increased capacity and flexibility for institutions and continues to develop year on year, now including embedded monitoring of the diversity of course reps, aiming to improve diversity, as well as providing a benchmark against which future activity can be monitored and measured.

Eve also reflected on the many changes within the sector over the years. The introduction of Scotland’s Quality Enhancement Framework and the enhancement-led approach to quality in Scottish higher education paved the way for Scotland to develop its partnership with students. The value students added to review teams quickly proved how much students had to offer, and colleges soon advocated to involve students in similar ways in the next cycle of review. Significant developments, such as the Student Engagement Framework for Scotland, developed with and endorsed by the sector back in 2012, the introduction of Student Partnership Agreements and the growth and development of college students’ associations were also highlighted. Eve reflected on the move from ‘participation of students’ to ‘partnership with students’, that was reflected in the name change of sparqs in May 2015, noting that whilst sparqs has supported that development, the success is a tribute to the hard work and commitment of many staff and students across the sector. Eve paid tribute to this commitment, reflecting on the response to the COVID pandemic and the dedication of many student officers in meeting that challenge. She also acknowledged the support of the sector agencies, SFC, QAA Scotland, Education Scotland, CDN, Colleges Scotland, Universities Scotland, and the Higher Education Academy (when it existed), alongside the support of NUS Scotland, which has been such an important part of sparqs’ journey. Eve highlighted the importance of this commitment from sector partners, recognising their support and commitment over the years, as well as the significant contribution from members of sparqs’ advisory groups, including the chairs of CAG, UAG and JAG, past and present, many of whom were with us on the evening to share in the celebrations.

Eve paid sincere thanks to the staff team and Trustees, both past and present, including our founding Trustees, who helped guide us through the charity set-up process, along with Nicola Cameron, sparqs Business Manager, who was instrumental in setting up the SCIO and the many new systems and processes involved.

Given the nature of the celebrations, it was only fitting for Eve to pay thanks to a hugely-valued staff team member who has been with sparqs since day one, Sarah Davidson. Always humble and completely unaware of her value within the team, Sarah expertly runs the CRT scheme (amongst many other things) and always goes above and beyond to provide invaluable support to both institutions and Associate Trainers, as well as the staff team. The room wholeheartedly agreed with Eve’s tribute to Sarah as she presented her with flowers and a gift from the team, in recognition of her long service and valuable contribution to the success of sparqs.

On a sadder note, Eve also paid tribute to two previous colleagues, Liam Jarnecki and Professor Norman Sharp OBE, both of whom were instrumental in the early days of sparqs, and both of whom sadly passed away in recent months. Liam was a former Director of NUS Scotland and was instrumental in setting up sparqs back in 2003. Norman was also instrumental in the set-up and in later years was the chair of sparqs’ Steering Committee from 2011 and the inaugural chair of the Trustee Board as sparqs became a registered charity in December 2015, until February 2019. During this time, he guided us expertly through what might have been periods of uncertainty, were it not for his steady leadership. Both Liam and Norman will be sadly missed by many, with sparqs owing a debt of gratitude to both.

Looking forward, Eve outlined some of the recent work of sparqs, including the ongoing tertiary development work, as we continue to work in collaboration with sector partners as the sector develops once again. At the end of the evening we were delighted to launch our new Student Learning Experience model, developed as part of the single tertiary approach to quality for colleges and universities. The new model seeks to put the experiences of students at the centre of the sector’s approach to quality. The model was commissioned by the SFC, following publication of their Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability report. It was developed by students in partnership with staff across the sector, in order to be focused on what matters most to our students. The model is designed to sit at the heart of conversations with students, enabling students and staff to work together to identify priorities to enhance the quality of learning. It plays a key role in Scotland’s quality arrangements and will continue to evolve alongside the tertiary approach to quality.

See our separate news article on the launch of the new SLE model and the extensive development process, which involved many sector colleagues, to whom we are sincerely grateful.

Student Engagement Awards 2023

A highlight of the evening was the 2023 Student Engagement Awards ceremony. The awards acknowledged the last 20 years and challenges of the pandemic, and reflected on developments in student engagement and partnership, not only in the past two years, but also across the two decades of sparqs’ existence, since our creation in 2003. The Awards ceremony was superbly hosted by Andrew and we congratulate all those who won a prize and thank everyone who took the time to submit entries. Thanks also to members of our Joint Advisory Group who formed the judging panels.

See our separate news article on the Awards to read more about all the award-winning entries and view some photos from the ceremony!

Thank you!

Once again, thanks to everyone who attended. It was great to have lots of past friends and colleagues join us to celebrate, which helped make the event so special!

Sincere thanks also to everyone who has supported and contributed to the work of sparqs over the years, from student officers, reps, students’ association staff and institution colleagues, to sector partners, international colleagues, Trustees and previous staff.  Thanks to all those who have given, and continue to give, their time to contribute to our work, including through our SESN and NEON networks, our Advisory Groups and governance processes. We look forward to continuing to work with you all in the future.

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