In this interview, we talk to Lucy Gault, Vice President Education with Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union, who is nearing the end of her second sabbatical year. Prior to her posts, she undertook a degree in English Literature and Sociology, also at Queen’s University Belfast.
1. You recently launched the university’s first, and indeed Northern Ireland’s first, Student Partnership Framework. Tell us a bit about how and why you developed that. And how does it differ from a Student Partnership Agreement, a term we’re more familiar with in Scotland?
Student Partnership has always been on the radar in Northern Ireland, however due to us having no sitting executive, numerous areas were not receiving the attention they deserve. Education being one of them. When I took up the role in my first year, student partnership was brought to my attention by the University, and I thought, we have a real opportunity here to make a difference for our students, to fill a gap that currently exists in higher education in Northern Ireland, and to show our dedication to providing the best possible educational experience, with the student voice at the forefront of it all.
If we want to talk about the quality assurance side, we know the UK Quality Code sets as one of its expectations for quality that providers “engage students individually and collectively in the development, assurance and enhancement of the quality of their educational experience”. But for me that’s just one aspect of it, it’s also about a culture change, it’s about showing students their Union and University do care about their experience, do want to hear their voice, do want to collaborate. So for me anyway, that’s the bigger ‘why’ behind developing our framework.
As for how, I can honestly say it has been a true partnership in actually getting a Framework together. Myself and Queen’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education and Students, Professor David Jones, established the Student Partnership Project Group and over the academic year the group defined what partnership meant at Queen’s. We analysed where our strengths and weaknesses lay, we researched and reviewed numerous SPAs from the UK and Ireland, we decided what key themes we wanted to focus on for enhancement and then asked the staff and student body what it was within those themes, that they wanted to see us work on. From that, we had our Framework, the first half detailing what we currently do in terms of student partnership, and the second half detailing the areas for enhancement and exactly how we’re going to go about doing that – all of which came directly from our students and staff.
Throughout the process we drew on work from sparqs, Wise Wales, and TSEP, and as I said, we reviewed a lot of different SPAs, so I would say that our Framework doesn’t hugely differ in content, but more in the statement we wanted to make with it, and I’m a big believer that language plays a very important role here. We wanted to make sure it was seen as something significantly different from the Student Charter, we didn’t want it to be just another thing students would sign, but something that was active, living, something that was open for engagement. That’s why we decided to go with a Student Partnership Framework, which ultimately became the Queen’s Partnership Project, an active, ongoing process built by our students and staff.
2. And what do you hope the framework will achieve? What does it include?
The Framework includes four key areas for enhancement: Student Voice, Student Representation, Communication, and Academic Enhancement. Across these four areas, there is a total of 13 projects to be undertaken University-wide. These include embedding Faculty-level representation, enhancing feedback mechanisms, developing technological support and more. The Framework also includes enabling actions such as the development of a website, which has now been established as a touchpoint, but which is still a work in progress, the provision of guidance documents and project templates, and ongoing engagement with all key partners.
Another aspect of the Project, is that we asked each of our 18 Schools to undertake a ‘local-level’ Partnership Project. Whilst the 13 University-level Projects will improve things for a lot of people, we wanted to provide the space for the Schools to take ownership of partnership, to identify in their own areas, what aspects of education they wanted to work on. So we saw students and staff come together in each School to develop their own projects.
So initially, I hope that the Framework achieves the 13 Projects we have identified, but furthermore, I hope that we have created a space for students and staff to discover what partnership looks like for them, I hope it’s a space that shows our students you can take ownership of your education, that you can make change. Ultimately, I hope the Framework achieves a culture change in bringing about genuine partnership and engagement in education.
We saw that change beginning to take place in hosting the first ever Student Partnership Conference at Queen’s. The event had students and staff presenting on their projects, and people from across Queen’s attending, it was fantastic to see and a great success.
Furthermore, Queen’s recently became one of the first Universities to create a position solely dedicated to leading the Partnership Project. This kind of commitment really was the cherry on top after a couple of years of really hard work, seeing the Institution respond so positively, and show they are serious about student partnership, knowing that the past couple of years’ work will continue, really made my time as VP.
3. You mentioned that the external aspect of the development of your framework has been important – a year ago we saw you present at an NStEP event, and you’ve spoken over here in Scotland about the work too. Why is networking beyond Northern Ireland so important to the framework and to your role generally?
It definitely has, drawing on others’ expertise has been essential, we wouldn’t have known where to start otherwise. This is obviously a huge field in Scotland, and I have worked closely with some sparqs members of staff over the past couple of years who have helped me develop the Framework and embed partnership in the Institution.
For me, networking beyond Northern Ireland is absolutely vital as I feel as though sometimes we are forgotten about, we have a lot of expertise to share as well, and we also have a lot of opinions.
Personally, I think our higher education system is more aligned with Scotland in the sense that we aim for it to be more enhancement-led, as opposed to the more compliance-led approach we see in the rest of the UK. Therefore, I think it’s important for my role, for the Framework, and for higher education in Northern Ireland, for us to have that voice externally, both to share best practice and to ensure that our identity as a devolved nation is not just acknowledged, but contributes to the national conversation on education.
4. Away from the Framework, what else has your role involved, and what have some of your other successes been?
My role has involved so many things, from training and working with hundreds of Student Reps, to sitting on many, many committees and working groups, to running campaigns as part of the SU Team that I couldn’t even begin to cover it all, but that’s the great thing about Student Officer positions. You’re introduced to so much, especially in education, there’s so much goes on behind the scenes to deliver a good education that we, as students, just don’t realise, and that insight has been fascinating.
In terms of other successes, I completely redesigned and delivered our Student Rep training to over 700 reps in 2017 and 2018. It got such a positive response that we saw much greater engagement from our student reps, as well as a greater sense of identity with the role, that was personally great to see. I’ve also been privileged to represent QUBSU and Queen’s at a number of events across the UK, including the Academic Registrars Conference, QAA Annual Quality Summit, NStEP, TSEP, and others. Not only has it been great experience for me, but to be able to learn from others, share our practice, and bring that back to provide an even better experience, I’d call that success.
Then finally, perhaps one of my biggest successes was guiding our students through a difficult time as Queen’s underwent a restructuring of our academic year. Things didn’t go as smoothly as hoped and there was a lot of backlash from the student body. I gathered a lot of student feedback, brought students to senior management, negotiated, and at times argued, with staff on multiple occasions to ensure that not only did this not happen again, but that students currently under stress would be supported. It was a very difficult period, and there are still issues, but in the spirit of partnership I engaged with the University to secure the best possible support and solutions for our students.
5. And finally, what next after sabbatical life? Would you like to stay in the field of education and engagement?
Yet to be determined! I would love to stay in the field of education, it has always been a passion of mine. In School, I thought I wanted to be a Primary School Teacher, that was until I realised I might not have the patience for a classroom full of 3 year olds!
But I know I wouldn’t have accomplished half of what I have, had it not been for a good education, so I just see so much value in providing the best experience possible, in really engaging with your education, and I would love to be able to continue to help others see that value too.
Thanks to Lucy 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.