8 May 2019

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with Sorcha Kirker

In this interview, we talk to Sorcha Kirker, Vice-President (Higher Education) of the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association (HISA). Previously she was the Depute President for Orkney College, and was a student of archaeology (completing her undergraduate degree with UHI, and going on to do two masters). At one point Sorcha also worked for sparqs as an Associate Course Rep Trainer.

1. You’re coming to the end of two years of sabbatical life in HISA. What does student engagement mean to you in the context of the University of the Highlands and Islands?

I think student engagement is crucial. If students aren’t engaged with the work we are doing (which is ultimately to improve their student experience while studying with us), then the work we carry out is meaningless. I think student engagement for me, is having students at the heart of our work so that they can directly shape what we are doing. It just makes sense, because ultimately the students are the ones who will know, not only what issues they are facing in their studies, but also they can provide us with information on how best to address these issues.

Our university is based across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, covering a region the same size as Belgium! We have thirteen Academic Partner Colleges, and roughly seventy-two learning centres. As we are a tertiary institution, we have both FE and HE students, and most other types you could think of. Student engagement is so important to our work, and it hasn’t always been easy to overcome the geographical barriers that we face, but luckily technology is a huge aid in this area!

2. Technology plays a big part of your role – indeed, you presented in Dublin last year to an NStEP Network event on that very topic. How do you engage reps across the region when they are so far apart?

Technology is a critical part of how we function at HISA, without it our communication would be severely limited, as you could imagine; our geography can be a massive barrier for student engagement. When it comes to engaging our student reps we have a number of ways of doing this. As mentioned, we rely heavily on technology to help us communicate, but the crucial link to the reps is really in the form of our Local Officers. These are officers who are elected to represent the different campuses of UHI, and they are a crucial link to the student reps on the ground.

Technology is fantastic, but there is an element of face-to-face contact that you just can’t replace. We also host our Regional Council annually, and there are dedicated spaces for reps from each campus to attend; it’s a fantastic event for student reps to come along to, to generate ideas, meet reps from across the partnership, get involved and shape HISA moving forwards.

3. Talking of Regional Council, you held one recently and had developed some creative sessions to engage reps. Tell us about that.

We actually held our first ever Student Rep Summit this year, as part of our Regional Council. It was a one-day event completely dedicated to the student reps at UHI, and it was something I had been working towards for a long time. This year it was hosted as part of the QAA Enhancement Themes project that we have been working on at UHI, but we want to make this an annual event.

As a result of the Enhancement Theme - ‘Evidence for Enhancement: Improving the Student Experience’ - the event was themed to focus on data, including student interaction and engagement with data, the importance of it as evidence, and how student reps can be more involved in data processes.

We had sessions to look at KPIs, specifically their importance and how student reps can help us to create new ones. There were sessions on engagement indicators, the importance of surveys, the perception of the student rep role and so much more! It was a really fun day (heavy emphasis on the fun, as a lot of these areas can be very dry), and we tried to be as creative as possible – using arts and crafts to engage the students with the workshops.

4. What else have you achieved in your role this year?

I have been quite involved with the QAA Scotland Enhancement Themes projects for my institution. Alongside this, I have been working heavily on the NSS; how we can improve our scores, and engage students more with survey processes as a whole.

I’ve also been working on a Student Partnership theme from last year, on student reps. As we have so many different student rep systems across UHI (the way the systems operate varies across the partnership), we’ve been using the SPA theme to try and align the systems more and create a student rep vision for the university.

I’ve also worked on several events for the students this year, such as attendance at ‘Proud Ness’, and taking students down to the People’s Vote marches in London. I think some of this work has been crucial in engaging students, as often due to our location, students can feel isolated. These events have allowed them to interact more with students from other campuses and fuelled some students to get more involved with HISA, which is excellent.

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Thanks to Sorcha 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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