This is the ninth post in the ‘Spotlight on ELIR’ series, where PhD intern Vesna Curlic reflects on her work on engaging students with the review process and considers how student engagement will be different in the upcoming academic year.
This reflection comes in a difficult context. As each day passes, September looms closer and for many, it is still unclear what the first term of the 2020-2021 academic year will hold. What will a hybrid model look like? What will our daily routines be like? What happens if there’s a second wave or a local outbreak? As this uncertainty reigns, many of us are thinking about student engagement for a variety of different purposes. Even at a distance, students and staff alike want our academic and social communities to remain sturdy. I have been thinking about these things for the last few months, while I have been supporting the Enhancement-Led Institutional Review (ELIR), which is a quality assurance process that all higher education institutions in Scotland undergo. While these are my reflections on the process of working on the ELIR these past few months, I hope these thoughts might be helpful to everyone who is in a position to think about student engagement in the coming months.
In the past, I’ve been guilty of assuming university students are all like I was – undergraduates, 17 or 18 years old, moved away from home for the first time, without caring duties or many responsibilities at all. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the reality, especially in such a global institution. At Edinburgh, we have an incredibly broad spectrum of students, each with their own unique backgrounds, contexts, and futures. When thinking about student engagement, this is a vital thing to keep in mind. By prioritising flexibility and an accessibility-forward mindset, we can assure that all students, broadly defined, can participate. For example, with the ELIR, we opted to introduce a pre-recorded video briefing for participating students. Though it didn’t replace an in-person or synchronous briefing, it did give some additional flexibility for those who might have busy schedules or caring responsibilities.
Students want to be engaged. They want to make a difference and they want to be involved in their University. This is a principle I have come to embrace in the process of working on the ELIR. Believing that students are genuinely interested, curious members of the institutional community transforms the relationship. Instead of cajoling reluctant participants, I’ve found that it is more productive to communicate with optimism and let students respond in turn. Speaking to students should be a dialogue, with room for responses and questions on both sides. Efficient, positive communication does wonders for engagement in all settings.
It feels daunting to consider student engagement when imagining a faceless, nameless mass of over 40,000 students. But within that massive number, there are countless smaller networks and communities. As we move into an unprecedented semester, I think it’s important to look to our own microscopic student communities, strengthen the existing structures and make space for new student voices within them. These communities might be at a course level, a cohort level, a programme level, or a school level but they’re definitely there in some respect. I encourage all of us to identify them and foster them, especially for incoming cohorts of students who are facing an already-challenging transition at a uniquely challenging time.
Ultimately, remaining engaged in University goings-on is going to be more challenging this year, as many will be distanced from the physical institution. I’m curious to see the ways that our communities will respond to a hybrid setting and the ways in which student engagement will change as a result of this endeavour. But I’m hopeful. I think our student communities are more resilient than a physical place.