This blog was written by Michael Natzler who joined HEPI as Policy Officer in September.
I graduated in June this year, and while at university I was elected to be the Faculty of Arts Undergraduate Representative, which involved listening to and voicing the opinions and problems of over 4,000 Arts, Humanities and Modern Languages undergraduates. The goal was to ensure university policy was informed by the student voice.
It was a mammoth task and it could well have been a full-time role. Each week, there were at least two meetings which I was invited to attend – for example, with the Student Union, Faculty Director or University Senate – and each had a chunky set of documents to read beforehand. Alongside this, I had to try and gather the opinions and experiences of a cross-section of the 4,000 students from their course representatives, of which there were over 100.
Frustratingly, there was no digital system which effectively reached students, just a deserted student forum with an unanswered question from 2014. Rather, the expectation was that one might go around lecture halls doing shout outs, collect evidence via social media and organise your team of course representatives to undertake a carefully executed information gathering, collating and communication campaign. All while juggling the demands of a full-time course, including a dissertation, job applications and social and sporting commitments.
Do not get me wrong, I loved the role and took so much experience from it which laid the way to the job I do now, and I’m aware there are lots of others in the HE sector who could trace their interest back to student representation. Similarly, I have no complaints to make about the people whom I worked with, always understanding that an imminent deadline would take precedence over attendance at a three-hour Faculty meeting about module distribution for the following year – not an issue you want to miss as it has an impact on every single student.
Student representatives in major but not full-time roles are forced to make a call between doing work for their degree and representing student views at important meetings. It is a problem that many universities do not invest in infrastructure so that student views can be effectively gathered. It is an awareness and willingness to listen and tackle the issues which they highlight which will drive satisfaction and improvements in teaching quality. Much can be read from where universities put their money and perhaps it is crudely telling that universities happily pay £9/hour for students to circulate canapés and top up glasses of fizz for guests of the university but are less keen to invest in strengthening the mechanisms of student representation which lie absolutely at the heart of their student programmes.
A fair riposte to the enormity of my old role may be: what would money do to help that situation – surely the heart of the problem is that the role is too big for one person? Perhaps that is true and the role should be split, but the issue remains that universities are relying on unpaid work and underdeveloped infrastructures.
What’s more, in all of this, universities may well find themselves in a hypocritical tangle. Increasingly university careers departments are moving away from listing unpaid work opportunities, especially in the arts industry. This is absolutely right. No student should have to pay for travel and time to work in an industry they might be interested in. Yet the very same universities that oppose unpaid work often rely on unpaid student reps themselves.
Fixing this is as simple as paying students for the work they already do as representatives of other students, often at the expense of their degree, adding value to not only the experience of their course mates but to the tens of thousands of students who will attend higher education in years to come.