In this interview, we talk to Mark Charters, Academic Development Coordinator at Glasgow School of Art. He studied at the University of Stirling, where he was also Vice-President (Education & Engagement) with the students’ association and then Representation and Student Support Coordinator. Mark has undertaken a number of roles in his journey through higher education, having been a Student Reviewer for the QAA ELIR process and now an Academic Reviewer, a member of the Scottish Higher Education Developer executive committee and is a current member of the sparqs’ University Advisory Group.
1. Let’s start back in your Stirling days. How did you get involved in the world of student engagement, and how did that lead you to your sabbatical role?
To be honest I was not a very engaged student, I was never a course rep, can’t remember filling in a module evaluation questionnaire and don’t even think I completed the NSS. I came into student representation through the liberation movement, being an active member of Stirling’s LGBT society. From there I was elected as LGBT Officer, organising campaigns on campus around equality and diversity issues. It felt a natural next step to stand for VP Welfare and Education in the Student Union, and I very much planned to focus in on welfare, advocacy and equality campaigns. Luckily I won the election and started the role, but little did I know that ninety percent of the job was really about learning and teaching and the student learning experience… something which thankfully I grew to love and have a strong passion for to this day.
One of my proudest achievements in my role at Stirling was the redevelopment of our class rep structure, helping introduce School Officers to the institution who worked at the School level (now Faculty Officers) fostering a partnership approach to enhancement of learning and teaching. Looking at how this has grown through the hard work and innovative approaches of the Union’s officers and staff over the years since I left Stirling, and seeing new Faulty Officers at sector-wide events, leading projects and disseminating good practice, makes me glad I was a small part of that work in the early years.
2. Tell us a bit about your current role at GSA, and how it relates to student engagement.
My role at GSA is quite varied, I predominantly work on staff development activities related to learning and teaching both through our M.Ed programme as well as through ongoing, informal CPD activities. Student engagement and partnership working are frequent areas of discussion in our CPD offer. We have invited students to debates and discussions in sessions and have also involved students in the development of CPD activities recently on a project exploring the PGT Student Experience (see our case study on page 17 of this Scottish Higher Education Developers publication).
Other parts of my role focus on policy matters through our Learning and Teaching Committee, a range of enhancement focused projects and management of GSA’s internal student experience survey.
Working in the Learning and Teaching Team I see my role as both a champion of partnership working and as a supporter of students in their representational roles. I work closely with our Students’ Association on a number of pieces of work and provide opportunities for training and ongoing CPD of reps and association staff.
Over the past year, following GSA’s introduction of a senior class rep role, the Lead Rep, our team has been working closely with these students in our preparations for our upcoming Enhancement-led Institutional Review (ELIR), with the aim of co-developing a student-led workshop to raise awareness of the ELIR process, as well as to help inform our reflective analysis and contextual themes.
3. GSA is a small specialist institution (SSI) – what does that mean for how student engagement looks and feels? Does it bring both opportunities and challenges?
One of the key features of GSA’s culture of student engagement is the informal and relational nature of our context. Being an SSI, size plays a big part in how staff and students can come together and discuss various topics, debates and issues in learning and teaching and this is an integral part of the ways in which we teach through a studio-based approach. This informal, regular and open approach through dialogue, means that whilst there are ample opportunities for feedback and discussion, these aren’t always captured, reported or responded to in formal ways.
Over the past few years the institution has been working to respond to this and has, through our Student Voice project, worked to formalise some of the structures to allow for a more systematic response. Through the project we have created a number of semi-formal forums for discussion which have formal reporting lines at both School and institutional level, as well as having introduced the role of Lead Reps who sit on School-level committees relating to learning and teaching. Whilst there is still some work to be done, we have seen some positive responses in our NSS results because of this work, but still need to enhance our approach to responding to students’ feedback.
This mix of formal, semi-formal and informal approaches to engaging with students seems to be a key feature of other small institutions and is one of the ways in which a sense of community and belonging can be fostered. Students, through our student experience survey, comment regularly about the sense of community they have, as well as the benefits getting to know staff on a more personal level has, for sharing views and resolving issues.
4. Recently, we piloted a student engagement analysis workshop at GSA with your help, which we had developed for international work, but not, until then, delivered in Scotland. What was your sense of how it generated conversations between staff and students, and outcomes you can progress?
For me, the workshop was a really great opportunity for us to take a step back and reflect upon all the work we have done as an institution and students’ association. The session really got me thinking about the distance travelled from where we were at the outset of the work and where we would like to go next.
Thinking a little more strategically, the workshop was also a really useful opportunity for us to evaluate and reflect upon student engagement holistically and help feed this into our preparations for ELIR.
Coming away from the workshop, we have already identified some easy wins in relation to how we communicate, recruit and support class and lead reps for the next session and we plan to bring together the workshop participants to review the data and think about next steps, once this is all available.
Thanks to Mark 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.