This blog was written by Michael Natzler, HEPI’s Policy Officer, who recently edited the HEPI essay collection, ‘What is the student voice? 13 essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say’ and contributed a chapter drawing on interviews with the Office for Students’ Student Panel. Michael is on Twitter @Michael_Natzler.
The first blog I wrote for HEPI when I joined about two years ago was about whether student representatives should be paid for the vital work they do representing student issues. It seemed absurd to me when I had been a student representative for 4,000 Arts and Humanities undergraduates putting in several hours each week that, beyond being good experience, something for the CV and a sense of doing good, the work was not a paid or more generally recognised role. The blog reads:
Much can be read from where universities put their money … 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. …
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 … yet the very same universities that oppose unpaid work often rely on unpaid student reps themselves.
It still seems bizarre that something so critical to students’ experiences at university is not better incentivised or supported by many institutions and the reliance on student volunteers prevails. Aside from avoiding hypocritical tangles, if course representatives were paid, it might open up the roles to students who would be unable to take on an unpaid role due to financial pressures. Their inclusion would mean their vital and often forgotten perspectives could inform decisions – a point Cath Brown makes in reference to mature and part-time learners in her chapter in our recent student voice collection. Cath also advocates for the payment of student representatives:
Moving student voice past the simple ‘feedback’ model towards real partnership and valuing experience and insight could pay dividends. And be prepared to pay students for their labour – not with pizza, but on a financial basis, as consultants. For mature students in particular, time is money.
Amatey Doku, Former Vice-President Higher Education at the NUS, has previously argued in the HEPI collection on racial inequality, The white elephant in the room: ideas for reducing racial inequalities in higher education about the importance of paying – or ‘not disadvantaging’ students – for their work in the context of students acting as consultants, as opposed to course representatives:
On most issues where high-level strategic change is required, universities will often look externally for strategic advice and support. Consultants, sector bodies and contractors usually do the bulk of work in drawing up strategies, proposing solutions and in some cases support in their implementation. Universities will often pay sizeable amounts for that level of support but when it comes to equality and diversity, and more broadly, the BME student experience, which also requires high-level strategic transformation, there appears to be less investment. …
For BME students, universities should work with students’ unions to ensure that there is support for students who engage with the universities’ efforts to tackle the issues. If a plan requires significant amount of students’ time, effort and expertise, measures must be taken to ensure that students are not disadvantaged from engaging and where possible remunerated accordingly.
Rensa Gaunt, former Cambridge University Disabled Students’ Officer takes a similar line in her chapter for the recent student voice collection in reference to disabled students:
Just as you would with professional experts, make sure we have the research support needed and the funding available to conduct a proper investigation and present the findings. Paying student co-researchers costs less than consultants, and we will tell you how things really are. Students can be cost effective co-researchers with lived experience; it can be that simple!
Amatey and Rensa make compelling cases that students at the very least should not be ‘disadvantaged’ for their work – and where possible that should be in the form of payment.
Is it time then that universities pay their course representatives, rather than relying on unpaid work. There seems to be a strong case based both on efficiency and fairness?
Taking a step back, when thinking about student voice more generally, there is a compelling case that universities should reconsider the core mechanisms of student voice as a whole, beyond simply how course reps function within that who, after all, although important only form a part of the way student voice can be collected. With the pressure institutions are under at the moment (which the upcoming spending review might only exacerbate), it is likely many institutions might not have the resource to commit to a truly comprehensive rethink of how student voice works at their institution, even if that would be the best way forward. However, just because the most desirable outcome might not be possible, that doesn’t excuse them from exploring smaller steps to improve how they work with student voice. So, considering course reps form a large part of many institutions’ student voice infrastructure, is paying student reps that small step they should take? I’m not so sure.
Taking student representation as a module
One panellist on the Office for Students’ Student Panel who had a wide range of representative roles before joining the Office for Students’ panel, said to me in an interview:
[Representative roles] have shown me far more than my academic work … a lecture hasn’t changed my perspectives … and it hasn’t taught me new skills.
What are the possibilities if we emphasise the work student representatives do as a valuable educational experience as opposed to emphasising the question of whether that work should be paid / or on a voluntary basis? Could a move to bring the work students representatives do into their course curriculum improve student voice, ensure students are not ‘disadvantaged’ for their work and do this in a cost-effective way?
The Office for Students / Research England initiative of involving students in Knowledge Exchange activities is an interesting parallel. In 2019, the Office for Students and Research England launched a fund which institutions could apply to for funding for projects that involved students in knowledge exchange activities, a key activity of universities. Some of the projects which received funding aimed to embed knowledge exchange activities into the curriculum as they saw the educational value this would bring to students. In doing so, whether deliberate or not, they also embedded knowledge exchange activities into the curriculum giving it support from the strong existing teaching and learning infrastructure which sits at the heart of universities. While they could run these projects outside the curriculum, bringing these inside the curriculum fulfils both students’ desire for education but also the effective execution of knowledge exchange activities. Could student voice benefit from being embedded into the curriculum in a similar way?
If the work course representatives do was enshrined as some sort of module, the place of student voice in university structures could be more assured. Not only could this enable a wider diversity of voices as student representatives, but the representatives would be able to commit more time to the role, as time spent would not be at expense of their degree. It would enable a relevant student to be in the room when important decisions are made while equipping them with valuable skills, fulfilling the institutions’ desire for both useful educational experiences for students and a better understanding of students’ needs. The skills gained from being a course representative are wide-ranging and could be formalised or assessed in partnership with the careers office, or if multiple universities decided to go down a route like this, shared online modules could be an option. Assessment could be tricky due to power dynamics between staff and students, but there could likely be a work around involving student assessment, an assessor external to the department or a less mark-scheme driven way of assessing the work the representatives do. Needless to say, such a module could be designed in partnership with students. This model might not work for all courses, for example, a medic would not be able to opt out of a module to be a course representative. These cases would need a different work-around, but they would likely be very much in the minority.
Following the introduction of the module, the long-term possibilities to develop such a module into what students need are wide-ranging. As a first step, however, accrediting the work of student representatives would represent a commitment to listening to and empowering the student voice. It would lay the foundations for more effective developments and wider changes in how institutions work with students in a way that a careers module, a note on their academic transcript or a small salary might not.