I was asked recently, by someone I’ve chosen to assume was playing devil’s advocate, whether students should be paid to act as student representatives; i.e. representing their year group at programme meetings (and other similar duties).
Is the concept of reimbursement for this role a natural reaction to the need to engage students in university business whilst experiencing apathy ‘on the ground’, with fewer students voluntarily giving of their time? The reasons for this situation are complex and may be precipitated by: pressure to devote more time to studying for a good degree result; a sense that any changes would not have an impact or affect them directly; and, for some, a lack of insight into the benefits such roles bring in terms of employability skills, personal development etc.
At Institution level I would argue that it should be a last resort. I was reassured by the unanimous rejection of payments to student representatives at the Higher Education Academy (HEA)’s ‘Student as Partners’ event.
The reason I say this is because it represents a failure with the mechanisms used for student engagement and/or a lack of creativity in applying them. A failure because of the nature of a transactional relationship: the representative role is developmental, co-curricular and should be part of the wider framework of student activities built around an open dialogue with teaching staff.
A recent UK report from the University of Bath, commissioned by the QAA, entitled ‘Student Engagement in Learning and Teaching Quality Management’ (Pimentel Botas, van der Velden et al, 2013) is equivocal in its coverage of this issue.
“Some institutions reported that some level of payment for representation roles existed, most commonly for those areas where it was harder to establish representative roles (faculty or school level, i.e. the level above the discipline) or for intensive temporary roles (curriculum review panel membership). Others had a firm stance against paying students. Where the arguments against related to safeguarding the independent nature of representational roles, the arguments in support of payment ranged from wishing to enable all students to stand for representational election, despite their financial situation, to insisting that if staff were rewarded for their contributions, this should also be the case for students.” (page 27)
Where a payment system is used, students may say that they would have undertaken the work regardless of whether they were paid. Those who undertake representative roles recognise its value.
One example of the existence of payments – at UWE, the ‘Attendance Allowance’ is made, under certain conditions, “in recognition of students… choosing to spend their time enhancing their academic experience for themselves and those around them”. Link to UWE student reps page
The NUS highlights some alternative mechanisms that may be used to recognise and reward the contributions of student representatives: Link to NUS Connect page
It is right to give recognition to students taking on this important role through, for example, certification or accreditation, additional training opportunities and the reimbursement of necessary travel expenses. The focus then is on effective communication, publicising the benefits of representation, support and training to develop relevant skills, and recognition for those students who fully engage with the role.
 University of Exeter, 5th June 2013