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Listen to students on their own terms

  • 25 August 2021
  • By Ben Vulliamy

This blog was kindly contributed by Ben Vulliamy, Chief Executive of the University of York Students’ Union. Ben is on Twitter @bvulliamy

When reading through the recently published set of essays produced by HEPI under the headline of When and how universities and policymakers should listen to students, I found myself wondering what my own answer would be to that same question. I was still mulling it over when A-level results day gave rise to a series of statements in the media from Ministers and university media teams about the extent of ‘in person face-to-face’ teaching in the year ahead and whether reductions to in-person study warranted a reduction in fees.

I was struck that this fiery debate was being carried out with strong opinions from various sides without a clear voice been given to the very students who incur the debt, who may or may not want to attend the lecture theatre. Not only were students’ voices not being heard in the debate, but some of the very decision makers also now debating the issue had stubbornly refused to engage with the student voices who had been asking these questions in the months preceding.

When students had initiated petitions, written to ministers, given statements to the press about a fee reduction to reflect the radical changes in learning as government-instructed closures were brought in and out and back in again, their questions were not substantively engaged with. When students lobbied institutions about their course changing beyond recognition, the common reply was about teaching still being delivered by other means. Students’ repeated calls for a dialogue about higher education experiences in a pandemic context were ignored, but when the Education Secretary makes those calls, they become an active debate. Perhaps, when students asked universities and policy makers to explore the value and cost of education and the way education is structured and delivered, they should have had a more substantive dialogue as a result. In doing so, could it perhaps have reduced some of the politics between government and universities and been much more constructive?

But, to try to answer the question of when and how students might be listened to more broadly, I cast my mind back to a busman’s holiday I took back in 2016 to explore a range of US universities. On the first day of my trip, I found myself having lunch with the President of a large (73,000 student), successful five campus public university system. The President talked about the absence of an independent students’ union within their structure and how instead he personally looked to put himself in close proximity to students to see and to hear their views and experiences first-hand. When I asked how that manifested itself, he shared some striking examples, including how he lived for 10 weeks each year in a different block of student halls or within a frat house. He gave examples of talking to the American football team in their changing rooms after the game to hear what held them back from greater success. He gave examples of eating once a week in the student refectory (he normally used his private dining hall outside his offices!) and chatting about the menu with students.

These were examples of putting himself close to students and hearing first-hand experiences and expectations. He shared real examples of how he had changed things based on the conversations: moving a bus stop too far from the halls to be more convenient and with better shelter; buying an extra TV set and satellite TV subscription to cater for more diverse interests in the frat house; securing additional coaching for the American football team; bringing in a veggie pizza offer in the canteen – and much more. These were impressive levels of commitment to listening to students directly that acknowledged the absence of a students’ union and sought to mitigate the resultant loss of narrative about students’ needs. Even beyond the role of the students’ union in articulating students’ needs, they did not have systems like the National Student Survey to gather and evidence the experiences of students across the sector, but he did have this impressive resumé of engaging directly with students.

But in each of the examples it was the President who had chosen their audience, had phrased their question, had prioritised the urgency of requests and had designed the solutions. They controlled the agenda and when and how to listen to students, as the HEPI essays explored – but also which students to listen to, what to ask and what to act upon.

For me, the most successful UK students’ unions see themselves as curators of student engagement. Beyond annual student surveys, beyond a small team of sabbatical officers sitting in university committees, it is the role of a student’s union to amplify the voices and experiences of students who have something different to say. To shine a light not on the critical mass of students who perhaps shout loudest and are already well heard, but the students who are most isolated, whose needs are least recognised. It’s the role of students’ unions to frame the questions to hear the real lived experience and ask the question that others did not dare or think to ask. It’s the role of the students’ union to show the disparity of need and breadth of opinion before they try to help synergise that. So, my answer to the question of when to listen to students is when your students’ union or students more directly tell you students have something interesting to tell you. My answer to how to listen to them is to let others frame the question, let others direct you. Listen and collaborate with them. Explore options with an open mind and a willingness to learn something or do something differently. When and how to listen to students is before they get fed up with asking and before an education minister and journalist ask the same question, but right in the midst of a hot potato of debates on admissions, fee reviews and demands to reopen campuses!

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1 comment

  1. Paul Woodgates says:

    A very interesting and timely piece about the importance of engaging on students’ terms and talking about the things that matter to them.

    I am always very sceptical about the kinds of “listening to students” practised by the US President mentioned here. Consider the frat house TV example: did the President somehow manufacture a new budget for the TV, or did the Estates Dept simply redirect a TV that was slated for another frat house with no working TV at all, so that the house the President happened to visit could have two?

    And the pizza? Getting a veggie pizza added to the menu is easy – job done, we are listening to students! But was that really the right response? A better response would have been to meet with the catering manager and discuss how they monitor student demand. If there are no veggie pizzas, is that indicative that options for vegetarians are poor across the menu. And what about vegan options? Or halal, kosher, etc?

    Gimmicks showing that “leaders listen to students” are sometimes hard to resist, but are no substitute for thoughtful engagement between university leaders and student unions to address issues.

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