In this interview we talk to Amy Hamilton, Students’ Association Development Officer at Borders College. Amy took up her post at the college in 2014, after many years in the retail and hospitality sectors and a stint teaching in primary schools.
1. Borders College is one of a small handful of colleges not to have merged or federated in the last year or two. However the increase in importance of student engagement and students’ associations to the whole college sector means that presumably your college has seen a lot of change too lately – would that be right?
It certainly has! In 2014, Borders College Students’ Association elected its first full-time Students’ Association President. Previously BCSA was only able to fund their president for one day a week. Having a full-time president has transformed the way in which students are represented across the college. The president and his elected officers now sit on a range of college committees relevant to the student experience, as well as regularly attending Faculty Council and Board of Management meetings, ensuring students are appropriately represented at all levels within the college. The association were also able to introduce a development post which has provided additional full-time support to the students’ association that is invested directly into the ongoing development of our structures and processes.
2. The Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council are keen to see students’ associations that are strong, sustainable, autonomous and appropriately funded. Does being a small college present any particular advantages or disadvantages to achieving this?
There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to being a small college. For example, we have a small student population which makes it reasonably easy to gather a representative view from the student body. Recently, we collaborated with the college on a comprehensive review of our student support services and were able to collect feedback from over 16% of our student population in less than a week. This would certainly be a bigger challenge in a larger college! Our Executive also has good visibility within the college and is able to build strong and effective relationships with college students and staff.
Like many colleges, we face cut-backs and growing pressures to secure appropriate funding from the SFC. However, at Borders College we are particularly concerned as to whether the SFC fully appreciates the challenges we face as a small rural college.
Ultimately, most college students’ associations appear to face similar challenges, regardless of size. A key priority for us therefore is to visit other students’ associations, identify their challenges, successes and opportunities, and apply what we have learned to build on our own effectiveness and augment our existing representational structures. We are a relatively new students’ association with a lot to learn and plenty of room to grow, and our more experienced counterparts have been an asset to our development.
3. You have recently started work on a Student Partnership Agreement at Borders College. What do you think this will help the college and the students’ association achieve? What does partnership mean to you?
Where we recognise the importance of creating a strong autonomous students’ association, we also value working in partnership with our college. As such, the Student Partnership Agreement will detail a set of mutually agreed priorities between the college and the students’ association with the aim to enhance the student experience at Borders College. The development of a partnership agreement will put students’ views at the top of the agenda, strengthen the relationship between the college and students’ association through collaborative working, and provide an opportunity for the students’ association and college to review and evaluate the effectiveness of representational structures currently in place.
To me, partnership is working together towards a common purpose. It implies a highly collaborative ethos where two or more parties recognise and respect the different skills, knowledge and experience each can offer. Partnership in the college context is about actively involving students in shaping their student experience. Not only are students involved in identifying areas for improvement, they are also identifying how to make those improvements and, where possible, helping facilitate change.
4. Having moved to working with a students’ association from totally different sectors, you must have some interesting perspectives on student engagement and student representation. At the risk of sounding like your job interview, what attracted you to the post? And what are your observations on student engagement since starting?
Initially, I was attracted to the developmental aspect of the role. I was excited to work with the students’ association to develop new structures and processes, and in turn measure the impact of our work. I come from an academic background and enjoy applying a theory and evaluating its effect. In this job, I’m doing that all the time!
Over and above that, we are starting to see a shift from viewing students as ‘consumers’ towards a more collaborative ethos within educational settings. It is really exciting to be involved with a students’ association at this pivotal stage.
From what I have observed so far, I see students’ associations as playing a vital role in the way in which students interact with their institution. Engagement in an educational context occurs when someone feels supported by their college, perceives a sense of belonging, and is given the autonomy to shape their own student experience. All of this can be provided holistically by an effective students’ association.
With this in mind, going forward we want to invest more in our class representative structures. We already have a highly effective Faculty Council structure that has been recognised as excellent practice by Education Scotland. We would like to build on this by establishing a stronger relationship with our class representatives. After all, they are at the heart of everything we do and serve as a vital link between the association and the student population. It is therefore important that we develop these structures appropriately to ensure the students’ association is sustainable in the long term.
Thanks to Amy 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.