In this post, Ellie Parker, Lynsey Dinwoodie, Graeme Trousdale, Boryana Ivanova and Jim Donaldson share their experience of organising and piloting a Student Partnership Agreement (SPA)↗️-funded event aimed at widening the student network and to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds have a positive and rewarding university experience. This post belongs to the Hot topic series: Student Partnership Agreement 2023↗️.
Where we started
The College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Widening Participation Network (CAHSS WP Network) was formed in May 2021 with the aim of building a community of staff working in partnership with student representatives to enhance the experience of students from disadvantaged or under-represented backgrounds through their university journey. Through the CAHSS WP Network, we fostered connections with students in Tackling Elitism, a WP student community which seeks to eradicate elitist university culture and promote equality, diversity, inclusion, and together we applied and received funding through the Student Partnership Agreement to run our Widening the Student Network event.
Planning the event
The event was envisioned as a full-day, College-wide event that would create opportunities for collaboration and community building between students, particularly those from WP backgrounds, and staff who may themselves also be from diverse or non-traditional backgrounds, or who are invested in supporting this work. We formed an organisational committee incorporating both staff from the CAHSS WP Network and students from Tackling Elitism. Together we planned the event to comprise a morning and afternoon panel session, along with an extended lunch with activity stands showcasing relevant services in the University and initiatives in schools and student societies that can promote academic support, community, and a sense of belonging (and food of course!).
How did the event go?
You can watch a video of the event below:
The day began with an introduction from the CAHSS Associate Dean for Widening Participation, Graeme Trousdale, and the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) Vice President Welfare, Lauren Byrne, which set the scene for the day on the importance of creating space for discussions around widening participation and the collaboration between staff and students.
The morning panel followed, and was student-led with chairs Boryana Ivanova and Grace Mai Clark representing Tackling Elitism and The 93% Club respectively. The panel itself was a mix of staff and students, all from WP backgrounds to talk about their experiences. Particularly striking was the similarity in experiences between staff who had graduated over 20 years ago and current students at The University of Edinburgh now.
It was powerful to see barriers broken down between staff and students and to hear about panel members’ experiences, whether that was a sense of “not knowing the rules” when starting university to then finding a community of people with similar experiences and backgrounds and realising “I’m not alone”.
The morning session gave everyone lots to think and talk about over lunch. To further help widen the student networks, there was also a range of activities available designed to raise awareness and engage participants in a range of services and initiatives in CAHSS schools, university services and student groups. Attendees responding to prompts posted in the room over lunch reported the event was making them feel positive, part of a community and was giving them the opportunity to meet new people and widen their network. Importantly, the event was also positively changing what attendees thought about WP at the University of Edinburgh.
The afternoon panel followed, focussing on skills development. There was a lively discussion incorporating both panel and audience members about the benefits of developing new skills, for instance in problem solving, that do not rely so much on cultural capital, before moving into a discussion about experiences of failure. Panel members shared their own experiences of failure and the notion that university should focus more on learning how to fail. Should we even be grading our students at all if we want them to learn to fail?
Spreading the word
Both at and following the event we received very positive feedback about the day and particularly how powerful the morning panel session had been. One notable regret was the lack of student voice at the afternoon panel (due to time of year event was held we were unable to secure a PALS lead as intended), highlighting again the importance of student-staff partnership in the project.
We presented about the project at the University Learning and Teaching Conference to further promote the positive outcomes from both our student-staff partnership as well as making space for discussing WP issues and creating a sense of belonging for, and to celebrate, our diverse student population. You can watch our presentation in the video below:
The CAHSS WP Network continues to form the basis for staff and student collaborations in WP activities within CAHSS, and meets monthly to discuss issues, share practice and ensure WP is prioritised in college and university-level work. We are currently having discussions with schools and services across the College and wider university about what work we should take forward, how we can better embed student involvement in the Network, and what similar events we may be able to run in the future, hopefully also involving the other Colleges within the University.
The Student Partnership Agreement funding certainly allowed us think a bit more boldly about the scope of the Widening the Student Network event – a spacious venue and catered lunch are both essential factors in a supportive and engaging event. The event was a powerful pilot in testing ways to make a real impact in widening the student network and more importantly, to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds have a positive and rewarding experience while they study with us.
Ellie is an Academic Administration Officer in CAHSS and supports the work and running of the CAHSS WP Network.
Lynsey is Head of Academic Administration in CAHSS and set up and runs the CAHSS WP Network.
Graeme is the Associate Dean for Widening Participation in CAHSS, and set-up and runs the CAHSS WP Network.
Boryana has recently completed her undergraduate degree in History, and co-founded Tackling Elitism.
Jim is the PPLS Skills Centre Coordinator, and supported the organisation and running of the Widening the Student Network project.