In this blog post, Callum Paterson discusses how the academic representative system works and how the University community can best support student representatives. Callum is the Academic Engagement Coordinator in the Student Voice Team at the Students’ Association. This post is part of the Learning & Teaching Enhancement Theme: Student Voice.
What do student representatives do?
First, a bit of context for this blog post. At The University of Edinburgh, there are around 1300 Programme Representatives, and more than 60 School Representatives, all of whom receive a robust induction and training package, as well as on-going support, from the Students’ Association.
Programme Representatives are student volunteers elected or selected to represent their programme or course and gather feedback from their peers, primarily on issues of learning and teaching. This helps them to identify recurring themes, good practice, and any problems in their individual programmes, and pass this information on to staff.
School Representatives are all elected volunteers, with candidates standing in the Students’ Association elections in March (for Undergraduate representatives) and October (for Postgraduate representatives). At the time of writing, we’ve just completed our 2023 Elections and elected a new slate of Undergraduate School Representatives who will take over from their predecessors later this year.
Each School has three School Representatives, one for each level of study (Undergraduate, Postgraduate Taught, and Postgraduate Research). School Representatives also gather feedback but from across their School instead of at the programme-level, and covering not just the academic experience, but also topics like sense of belonging and student support. However, they also use the information already gathered by Programme Representatives to give them a broad view of students’ opinions within the School. This is something we actively encourage because often, when Programme Representatives and School Representatives work collectively, common themes can be identified across multiple years or programmes within the School.
Feedback sometimes has a bit of a negative connotation, so you might assume you’d just be presented with a list of problems with your programme or School. We don’t like to just dwell on problems though. So, as part of their training from us at the Students’ Association we encourage all our Programme and School Representatives to also celebrate what’s working well for students and identify – with help from their peers – solutions and enhancements rather than just presenting their staff with issues. This, we hope, makes the process more productive and positive for everyone involved.
We encourage regular conversations and touch-points where student representatives can pass on feedback and ideas to staff. This means that students’ views can be considered both in following academic years but also, in many cases, for the rest of the programme in the current year. For example, if Programme Representatives find that multiple students on their programme are struggling to understand a specific concept or that they find lecture recordings to be sporadic, their professors and lecturers can bear this in mind, and try to implement the feedback as soon as possible.
One of the key forums where this dialogue takes place is in Student-Staff Liaison Committees (or SSLCs). These meetings take place at least once per semester and are where student representatives can present their findings and feedback to staff. This allows problems big and small to be discussed and addressed. If multiple Programmes within the School are facing the same difficulties due to a flawed policy, for example, then through SSLCs staff from across the School can be made aware and try to resolve them together.
How can staff support Programme and School Representatives?
From the off, members of University staff can and should encourage student representatives to step forward. Programme Representatives usually volunteer at the beginning of the semester, and encouraging your students to put their name forward is the first step to making mutually beneficial connections with your cohort of students by showing that you want them to make their voice heard. This article, Become a Programme Representative in 2022/23, from August 2022, highlights the benefits of the Programme Representative role to students. School Representatives must submit a nomination in one of our annual Elections, but staff can encourage engaged students to put themselves forwards.
Once they’re in post, one of the best ways to support Programme and School Representatives is to actively engage with them and the ideas and opinions they bring forward. You don’t have to necessarily wait for an SSLC invite to pop up in your calendar! Consider dropping representatives in your programme or School an email to introduce yourself and ask their opinion on things or ask how you can support them in gathering the views of their peers. Showing that you are not only willing but actively keen to listen to and take on students’ feedback can really help to build goodwill and rapport with your students.
We always encourage the relationship between staff and student representatives to be constructive and productive. While SSLCs and other forums are spaces for all feedback (the good and the not-so-good) to be shared, it’s vital that both sides of the discussion work together to address the issues that students identify. It’s also worth noting that these are valuable spaces to celebrate the things that are going well in individual programmes and in the School overall!
What are the benefits of this system?
For students, the answers to this question are likely quite clear. Engaged student representatives have the role recognised via their HEAR, as well as having the opportunity to shape and improve their programmes, Schools and the University as a whole for both current and future students. They can also use time spent in these roles to work towards the Edinburgh Award and the Saltire Award. Other students who engage with their Programme and School Representatives also have that same opportunity to improve their experience by sharing their feedback and ideas.
It may be less clear what staff get out of the system. One major benefit is that you have access to a concentrated and broad source of feedback and ideas from all your students which you can use to modify your programme and improve the experience your students have. With student representatives who are active, engaged, and feel supported, you can hear from your students through their representatives and not rely on near-constant surveys throughout the year that few students fill out.
A hugely important and valuable step in this system is closing the feedback loop. We encourage our representatives to do this by letting the cohort they represent know what they raised with staff and the outcome of those discussions. This way students know that their concerns and ideas are being listened to, which encourages further dialogue and can lead to positive changes for everyone. The more students enjoy their programmes, the more engaged they will be with their lecturers, the content, and their School. The same goes in reverse, as the more engaged they are (and crucially, the more they recognise that staff are keen to engage with them) the more they’ll enjoy not only their programmes but their overall student experience.
So, if you want to improve the student experience, build goodwill with your students, create more engaged students and graduates, and tap into a concentrated source of feedback and brilliant ideas, I’d really encourage you to seek out your Programme and School Representatives and start the discussion. Who knows what you might achieve together?
Callum Paterson is the Academic Engagement Coordinator within the Student Voice team at the Students’ Association. He works with Programme and School Representatives as well as the Vice President Education, supporting and empowering them to make their voices heard on the issues that matter most to them.