30 Jul 2015

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with Rob Henthorn

In this interview we talk to Rob Henthorn, the newly elected Vice-President (Education) of NUS Scotland. He has just completed his second term as President for Education and Employability at Aberdeen University Students’ Association. He studied History and Philosophy prior to his sabbatical role.

1. Congratulations on your new role within NUS Scotland. Tell us a little about your journey in representation thus far. What got you into student engagement in quality?

I was a class rep in my first year, but I found it unfulfilling and frustrating – I felt that it was hard to get the university to involve students in high level strategic decision making. We ended up raising basic facilities issues, but I was determined to make the role more about a democratic education system, with learning and teaching at course level being more student-driven.

I became a school rep, then ran to be sabbatical education officer. As a sabb I had the intent of changing our rep system to become more about programme level and involving students in strategic decisions about how departments design courses – rather than just a feedback loop led by the university to which students contributed but never identified with.

2. Why did you feel students were stuck in a feedback loop?

Universities rightly expect academics to be experts in what makes a good degree programme. And though they’re interested in students’ ideas about how pre-designed content can be improved in minor ways, there’s not a sense that student expectations can contribute as much to questions about where a course is going. We need to understand that for course design to make sense.

3. Were you able to work on some of those intended changes as a sabbatical officer?

On a structural level, moving from course level reps to programme level reps was important, so it would become about the wider degree programme rather than just a module. That means in theory – though it is still working its way into practice – that the discussions at Student-Staff Liaison Meetings are about things that the schools and departments have much more influence over. It is also about developing the programmes and not just individual courses – for instance how does the programme link with ambitions for future work or study, Erasmus, honours preparation, and original student expectations?

To me there is a vital distinction – it should not just be about why students are studying what they chose, but why what they think they’re studying is important. These are bigger questions better raised at programme level.

4. We talk a lot about partnership between staff and students, and between institutions and students’ associations. What does partnership mean to you? What does it involve for both sides?

I’ve always felt it is something that should be happening at the lowest levels of staff-student relations, and not mediated through the upper echelons. The best things about partnership are captured in terms like collegiality – feeling a part of the community alongside researchers, teachers and so on. There should be a sense of collaboration around the process of learning and teaching.

That’s easy for me to say in a research-led institution where many postgraduates teach and you get that community in small departments. Creating that sense of partnership in other, bigger, departments – or indeed colleges and workplace-based learning environments - is a major challenge.

5. Looking ahead, what are some of the things you hope to achieve as NUS Scotland’s VP Education in the coming year?

We will be doing some work on upskilling students’ associations to talk about employment and how learning links to work. We know the views of the Scottish Government, we know about the Wood report, we know institutions’ own ‘employability’ agendas - but we don’t really know what students themselves think about how learning and work would interact. It should be about more than just trying to get a destination job, and also about personal value. So I want to develop a learner-centred way of understanding and changing this field, driven by our values on workers’ rights and how learners want to use their skills and knowledge to change the world.

Further, I’ll be trying to embed academic rep structures in college students’ associations in Scotland so we can get them to an appropriate standard. There’s some good stuff on this, of course, in the new college SA framework. We need to help college students’ associations win arguments about creating dedicated academic representation staff so there is continuing organisational knowledge and an ability for students’ associations to lead on work rather than just be a part of college activity.

We’ll also be contributing to the Scottish Government commission on widening access, and raising in particular rural poverty – often the talk is of urban poverty, but we mustn’t forget rural areas.

Finally, a massive priority will be liberation of the curriculum. This means working with the sector and students’ associations on getting equality and diversity considerations not just built into the content – through reading lists and so forth – but built into how things are actually taught. There is scope here to look at how students’ own experiences can contribute to the breadth of teaching: for instance, you may teach one group differently from another because of the stories they tell and the lives they’ve lived. That is an exciting example of learning that is really shaped by students.

Thanks to Rob 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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