In this interview, we talk to Ignas Gaižiūnas, student at Vilnius University (VU) in Lithuania. He is studying an MSc in Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics, and has held various representative posts in Vilnius University Students’ representation (VU SA). He also has a teaching post as a physics teacher in a local high school.
1. We met you earlier this month in Vienna, at the European Quality Assurance Forum, where you presented a paper on the development of student representation in quality at your university. Before we ask about that, can you tell us what originally got you interested in student representation?
I applied to study Physics in Vilnius University as it had a reputation as the best university in Lithuania. However, when I started to study, I noticed many problems in my study programme. So, then I decided to do my part. As there was already an active student group working in my faculty, I joined them, so I could improve my studies for myself and also for my colleagues. Though currently I am studying for my MSc I am still trying to do my best to represent students and to promote active and competent student participation in the academic life of the university.
2. In your paper you outlined the work that has been done in recent years on creating a more co-ordinated approach to student representation in Study Programme Committees (SPCs). What was the situation like before? What were you trying to improve on?
To my mind, at the very beginning the situation with students’ representation was chaotic. Some students’ representatives were doing a good and systematic job. However, everything usually depends on a particular person and when he/she finishes studies all work just vanishes. That was a problem while no one was working systematically. Also, it should be noticed that some problems were largely occurring throughout a particular faculty or even university-wide, but every representative was working separately and only solving them by themselves. In addition to that, the majority of students’ representatives were not performing their duties well, because they were lacking support or competences to do their jobs properly.
At that moment problems were varying from not having a real possibility to select elective subjects to having inadequate placing of particular subjects, from not having access to syllabus of study subjects to not having access to a necessary literature. Mostly problems were rather structural and now we have the majority of them solved within a few years.
3. One of the improvements you highlighted was the training for student reps on the SPCs. How did you develop that and what does it include?
At VU SA we were aware of those problems I’ve mentioned before for a while. So, training for students was the first necessity we’ve introduced. Every year the VU SA students’ representatives’ co-ordinator is responsible for organising the training. At first we used to have three-day long training, which were organised away from Vilnius. During the past few years they were changed to two days long in order to reach senior representatives (especially at MSc programmes) who are working five days per week.
The content of training is changing every year because we try to take into account changes which are happening in the University. We do this so students’ representatives get information and knowledge that is up to date. Also, it should be mentioned that competences of representatives themselves are different every year. The important thing is that we are always trying to make training as practical as possible and to include activities which would be performed by representatives later.
Generally, we always begin with some theoretical information about the duties of a representative, and study regulations and decision-making processes in VU. Then we move to discussion and analysis of problems that appear in a study programme and how they should be presented at the Study Programme Committee. Usually our training finishes with simulation. In this activity we simulate meetings of the Study Programme Committee, where training participants have to present a problem to the Committee and to achieve a solution which would be beneficial for students. This simulation is always a well-received part of training, because representatives can “try out” things which they’ve learned during the two days.
4. You also spoke about the creation of faculty co-ordinators who, along with the overall student representative co-ordinator, have helped to better support the reps. We’ve been doing a lot of work lately ourselves on what makes a good faculty rep system, so what do you think has been the particular value of the faculty co-ordinators?
Firstly, faculty co-ordinators are creating opportunities for different representatives to communicate and to act together on some problems. As a result, representatives are feeling the support and assistance while they are representing students. This interaction between representatives is facilitated by the co-ordinator and ensures exchange of good practices and also a systematic approach while solving faculty-wide problems. The decision to have co-ordinators at faculty level is also good practice, because they can inform students’ representatives efficiently about any relevant changes or decisions happening in the University. Moreover, when representatives are facing challenges with their duties, faculty co-ordinators are helping with those duties and supporting representatives as much as possible. Lastly, the faculty co-ordinator is a person who collects reports of representatives on their activities. These reports are later used as reporting tools for students and are passed year-to-year to elected representatives in order for new representatives to be informed about changes before them.
5. And tell us something of the impact of this work on quality – and the university’s reaction.
Administration at University and faculty level was always suspicious about students’ representatives and their actions. They thought that students’ representatives are incapable of participating in discussions constructively and providing relevant impact. So, at that time raising issues about studies usually ended up in negative reaction or disregard, which didn’t help us to improve things.
However, now more and more students are acknowledged as colleagues with the same rights to make decisions and suggestions on any question related to the life of the academic community. Our co-ordinated work gave a result of more attention being paid to representatives’ opinion. Though it has to be admitted that this change happened more quickly at University level than in faculty level, because at faculty or even at programme level representatives still are not perceived that well.
6. Finally, what next? What do you think would be useful next steps for the student rep system at the university?
There is no limit for perfection! :-) As most of the problems which we saw when we were junior students are solved now; other issues arise to take their place. Now, when we see constant improvement, one of our core values is seeking to adapt our students’ representatives’ co-ordination system to suit the needs of new student generations. Furthermore, we still have to solve the issue of successful information transfer from one generation of representatives to another; also we have to develop a wider variety of methods for representatives to perform their duties well. The most challenging job for us remains the provision of best support for representatives and its constant improvement.
Thanks to Ignas 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.