Higher Education Institutions are run by committee. For staff, both academic and administrative, who regularly attend committee meetings, it is likely that over time they have become accustomed to the form and practices of meetings but for student reps it can at first be an overwhelming and intimidating experience.
The intimidating atmosphere is created by the formal set-up of meetings, particularly those further up a committee hierarchy where staff outnumber students. For new course reps it is likely to be the first time they have experienced such an environment. Despite the good intentions of committee chairs, secretaries, student engagement staff and students’ unions, many reps will experience anxiety and be hesitant about speaking-up.
With an increased focus on student engagement, representative systems are well established and there is a great deal of good practice in the induction and training of elected student reps. This covers areas such as how to go about gathering the views of fellow students, how to prepare for meetings, feeding-back to students and the benefits of the role. The National Union of Students (NUS), for example, provides useful guidance.
From an institutional perspective, it is easy to become complacent and settle for a situation whereby student reps fulfil a QA requirement but nothing more than this. This can lead to neglect in considering the role and function of student reps in the design and operation of meetings, and ultimately disengagement from representative systems.
Here are some areas where there may be scope for adapting practices to help student reps navigate committee systems:
Appointing a designated staff member to support student reps
A named contact assigned at an early stage in the academic year can enable student reps to seek support when needed and be up-to-speed as quickly as possible. This could involve the staff member assisting with meeting preparation by going through the papers and identifying expected items of discussion, helping reps to communicate with their fellow students before and after meetings and identifying items which may be best referred elsewhere.
Defining student roles
Be clear about what’s expected. If there’s a standing report item for student reps then what are they expected to cover? Are there any committee conventions (or jargon) that need explaining?
The ‘closing the loop’ angle usually means reporting back to the students on their programme. A more rounded approach involves supporting other networks to share feedback across disciplines/faculties, targeting distance learners or those with limited access to campus to avoid representation being restricted to a narrow constituency of the student body.
The time commitment for meeting preparation, attendance and follow-up is significant (for all committee members). Placing time limits on report items, for example allocating up to 10 minutes for a report including questions, will help to keep the committee focused and to its allotted time.
The chair and secretary have key roles in managing the meeting schedule. Using timed agendas is a good way of anticipating the length of meetings and allows judgements to be made on whether to defer items to a later date.
Do all committee items require student attendance? This should be determined in consultation with students so that student views are part of key discussions, with their role as full committee members reinforced, but there may be some, e.g. procedural items that could be taken at the end of the agenda so as to limit the time commitment.
Listen to student reps’ experiences
How often are student reps asked about their views on how committees operate? This would seem to be an essential starting point. Is there a chance for a hand-over with the outgoing rep?
Breaking-down the divide
Meeting key personnel, such as the chair, before the meeting will help to de-mystify the experience. For example, organising refreshments immediately before the first meeting of the year so there is a chance to talk informally and meet committee members individually. At the meeting itself, introductions (as a minimum) could be supplemented by name tags or other ways of helping with identification.
The suggestions made above are not intended to be exhaustive but the key message is to consider the viewpoint of student reps – as well as other committee members – in the design and operation of deliberative committees so as to encourage greater participation and engagement, particularly when it comes to important discussions and decision-making about curriculum development, teaching, learning and assessment.