19 Feb 2019

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with Tom Lowe

In this interview, we talk to Tom Lowe, who is the Centre for Student Engagement Manager at the University of Winchester and Secretary for the international network RAISE (Researching, Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement).

Tom’s area of focus is the practicalities surrounding engaging students in enhancing the student experience and he has researched student accessibility, belonging and involvement in Higher Education. Tom is also the programme leader for the University of Winchester’s PG Cert in Student Engagement in Higher Education, working at the cutting edge of student engagement and Students as Partners in International Higher Education. He has experience working with over 20 HEIs internationally and considers himself an advocate of engaging students as partners.

Prior to August 2017, Tom was the Project Manager for REACT (Realising Engagement through Active Culture Transformation), where he facilitated collaborative development between 16 universities on the subject of student engagement in educational developments. Before REACT, Tom was Vice President, Education at Winchester Student Union, representing the students of the University of Winchester. During his time as Vice President, Tom gained a particular passion for student engagement, starting up the sector-commended Winchester Student Fellows Scheme and working with the NUS and QAA to enhance national practice and policy relating to student engagement.

1. How would you define student engagement, and what first got you into it as a student at Winchester?

I first became educationally engaged beyond my course at Winchester as a Student Academic Representative (StAR), representing “combined students” who were taking the Archaeology programme as one of their combined options. I volunteered in the first lecture, not really knowing what I was getting myself in for, but I had arrived at Winchester as a student keen to get involved in campus life. In the same semester, a fellow student and I set up a course society, for which I was elected as Chair in my first year, which I then continued until the end of my second year, stepping down as I wanted to “concentrate on my third year”. Unfortunately the students’ union exec team had found me by then and I was coerced into running to be a Faculty Officer as I had showed interest in students asking for a high-quality education for our £3,000 tuition fees (quite a different student engagement mind-set to the one I have now!).

As a student I certainly defined student engagement as the cause which motivated students to work with and lobby the University to make enhancements to the educational experience. Now I define the buzzword/phrase of “student engagement” literally, as the term can be used for endless purposes, but largely, they are all positive, whether working with students as partners in educational development, research aspects of students’ experiences or ensuring student voice systems are meaningfully working for all parties. Student engagement is a banner of activity, discourse and research which offers positive opportunities to reflect, collaborative and discuss how education works and how it can be enhanced.

2. Tell us a bit about your sabbatical role in the students’ union. What did you do over your year?

Following a year as a Faculty Officer, previous SU Presidents had budgeted and lobbied for a new sabbatical officer role, a “Vice President, Education”. I ran for the role in 2013, re-running in 2014 and certainly found the process the sharpest learning curve working in student engagement practice to date. My first NUS events had sessions led by Rachael Wenstone presenting the Manifesto for Partnership, the QAA sharing the Quality Code’s Chapter B5 for Student Engagement and the beginning of the growth of the national Change Agents' Network (CAN) and Researching, Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement (RAISE) conferences.

There was an incredible amount of discourse in the area of student engagement at external events and together with colleagues at Winchester, we moved quickly to put as much into practice as we could. In the two years of being a sabbatical officer, we founded the Winchester Student Fellows Scheme (a student-staff partners scheme of 60 partnerships a year), a re-vamped Student Representation System, created a Student-Led Teaching Awards ceremony supported by NUS and trained students to sit on Quality Panels. These were all awesome projects to be part of and this is where I began my passion for the practicalities of student engagement in Higher Education. I saw the positive outcomes of student-staff collaborations, the magic of committee discussions between staff and students and the motivation, identity and power brought to students by these experiences.

Of course, my sabbatical officer role featured the other aspects of any small students’ union officer, such as being a Sports Tour Leader, attending NUS National Conference, campaigning for 24-hour library, one-to-one advice, and working 28 days straight in September, but the most valuable part I still look back to today, is the on-the-ground student engagement practice I experienced and co-ordinated.

3. How did your perspective change when you were at the REACT project? It must have been interesting to move to a national view of student engagement and to be working with so many different institutions.

The REACT project certainly altered my perspective to create a far more considered view of facilitating, supporting and developing student engagement at different universities of size, culture and student demographic. Challenges, barriers and sometimes benefits that come with diverse HEIs made me realise how complex our HE sector is, yet with patience and adaptability, I saw that conversations and activities around student engagement still had the same benefits I saw in Winchester.

The REACT Project came with a brief from HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) to focus on so-called “hard-to-reach” students, which is a term we hopefully dismissed as useful for our sector. Claiming students are “hard to reach” is a damaging term which places blame on students, and suggests that they are not engaged at all in any aspect of HE life, which is often not true. Having the opportunity to have a two-year national conversation on the topic significantly built my perspective of student engagement practices and the importance of ensuring our activities are inclusive, meaningful and accessible.

Following REACT, I am far more critically aware, not just of the physical barriers present at university for many students (no matter their characteristics), but most profoundly, the social and language base barriers we have all been guilty of putting in the way of student engagement. Phrases like “disengaged students”, questions like “which students don’t engage”, occasions of student othering, even if meant without spite, like “students don’t turn up to events when we run them” are all damaging and take us away from our purpose, using the impossible-to-cluster homogenous group (students) as the ones to blame for low student engagement in activities or initiatives.

The REACT project showed me that no student can ever be “hard to reach” to an institution, as students can engage in endless ways in education, and the term itself is often falsely used as “hard to reach” suggests considerable effort had already been made to “reach” the students, which is often not the case. We need to reflect on our practice if our student engagements are low, rather than blame student apathy, to ensure our opportunities are accessible and they don’t come with physical or social barriers preventing student engagement.

4. And how did the Centre for Student Engagement at Winchester come about? And what does your role involve?

The Centre for Student Engagement concept came about following a Student Fellows project which identified the need for greater signposting and even a possible location where students could find out about extra-curricular opportunities (educational, sport, volunteering etc) in one location following a research project exploring how students defined student engagement at the University of Winchester.

Following this idea by a student, a team were sent to reflect on Winchester’s student engagement developments in 2016 at the Students as Partners Summer Institute run at McMaster University, Canada. At the retreat, the mixed staff and student team brought across the idea of the Centre and identified several other innovative student engagement projects for a proposed Centre to focus on. As REACT drew to a close, the University of Winchester senior management were keen to continue activity, research and innovation in the area, so the Centre was approved along with a new Manager position which I applied for.

5. Now you’re in that role, what does it involve?

The goals of the Centre included creating an online platform on the University’s virtual learning environment to signpost students to extra-curricular opportunities, the validation of a PG Cert Student Engagement in Higher Education, and to assist departments at Winchester with engaging students in their practice. My main role, as manager of the Centre, involves programme-leading the PG Cert Student Engagement in Higher Education programme (soon to be validated as a Masters), where I teach 80% of the content and support colleagues from across the sector taking the programme.

In the other half of my role, I oversee University projects relating to enhancing student engagement/student experience, advising departments with their feedback practices, continuing to research student engagement in HE and overseeing the Centre’s staff, who run our new “Get Involved” signposting service for student opportunities (which we launched in March 2018). The Centre is ever-developing and in two years, our duties may have refined, increased, spread or changed focus, but I feel the Centre reflects the mobility of the student engagement discourse and our activities will adapt as required.

6. You’re also the Secretary of RAISE. We’ve always enjoyed engaging with RAISE and have presented at a few of its conferences, but what do you see as the benefits of the network?

RAISE is a growing network for all stakeholders in Higher Education who wish to share practice, research, reflections or perspectives relating to the ever-expanding discourse and area of activity of student engagement. RAISE is open to all students, no matter the level of study, discipline or type of institution, and all staff, whether professional or academic. The main benefits to the network is its accessibility to anyone who is interested, where longstanding members and new members speak to one another alike in a space for collaboration.

The conference is definitely the best way to experience RAISE for the first time, then if you are interested in staying in touch throughout the year, the communities of our Special Interest Groups offer support networks on certain topics. Also, it is brilliant to be a community-run network with no government or sector funding, so we will keep going whatever the climate! We always welcome new people to RAISE, so please come along and also check out our journal as a place to publish your work and research in student engagement.

7. Finally, what next? Both for your work, but also your sense of where the broader debate and research into student engagement will go in the near future.

In the next year, I am eagerly anticipating the validation event for the approval of the Masters route for our Student Engagement in Higher Education programme this Autumn. I am also working with the University and students’ union to further develop the accessibility of our opportunities at Winchester as well as exploring how we can facilitate reflection for our students, so that the value of the great roles they have carried out alongside their courses is recognised. We have over 150 student opportunities at Winchester, which we are always developing, and I am keen to celebrate our students’ successes in student engagement, democratic and community roles.

In wider student engagement debates and practice, I am interested to see where new trends emerge at HEIs where many are referring to their new Data Analytics systems as “Student Engagement Trackers”, which to many is an appropriation of the term. I am also keen to see the impact of the new Quality Code’s Student Engagement theme, alongside the impact of the NSS Questions 23-25 on the HE sector, which place emphasis on engaging the individual student and the collective student cohort at the same time, which is a difficult endeavour. I am also interested to share practice in evaluating and defining student engagement practices, which is still an emerging and experimental area.

I do believe that student engagement, as an area of activity, research and discourse, is here to stay following over ten years of UK conversation. However, I do feel it could be shaped into new definitions, contexts and purposes. Colleagues in student engagement should keep a keen eye on the use of the term or brand of “student engagement” for projects at their institutions and take time to reflect on how we are communicating and championing engagement amongst our communities, as contexts do change; but an emphasis on the core values of student engagement, for example meaningful discussion, accessibility, diversity and empowerment, must remain.

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Thanks to Tom 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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