The importance of listening to students in response to a pandemic (and beyond)

white book in white table near yellow wall

As Coronavirus dominates our everyday life and impacts profoundly on the University experience for millions of students, it’s important that we don’t forget the lessons of 2019 in which student partnership was key.

One small positive of the new world that we have found ourselves in since March is that it had forced institutions to look at their student charters in a very different way to what they had done previously. It feels that it is only being slowly noticed that the way forward for the sector was to truly work in partnership with students in order to improve the university experience. For many Students’ Unions, this is welcome renewed energy into what they had been preaching for years: “Listen to Students”.

From my experience last year as a Students’ Union President, I noticed the sector soon saw best practice emerging in which institutions started paying students in a bid to treat them as a true partner in every sense. This saw staff and student projects became the shining pillars of achievement and we saw what could actually be done when we worked together collaboratively. Students are experts in their own learning experience, so it made every sense to include them equally in key decisions; a warmly welcomed culture change by many Students’ Unions.

As COVID has taken over however it is essential that this partnership working continues and isn’t binned off as endless deadlines and rapid decision making takes over. The sector is working tirelessly to keep up with the latest changes and adapt in ways they have never been asked to do before, students must be kept at the heart of this.

There is still lots of work to be done though, and it can only be a hope that this cultural shift can be maintained in a post-pandemic world. There is still the issue of student representatives being seen apathetically on a national scale too as they have come under scathing hits from the government for their “niche activism”.

As the university experience has been well and truly transformed during 2020, including students in what this looks like and involving them in shaping this new learning experience has never been more important.

As we face unknown ways of working and try out new ways of teaching which we haven’t done before, it is crucial to ensure that students are kept at the heart of future decision making. This is so that institutions can get it right and avoid simple mistakes that students will undoubtedly point out immediately anyway. We are already beginning to see instances of this across the sector, where issues students warned of back in March could have been easily prevented from happening; but now are too far gone to fix easily.

If you are wanting to proactively work with students, here are some partnership principles we think it’s important you remember about working with them during Coronavirus and beyond

  • Responding to this pandemic is new for everybody. That means neither students nor university leaders will get it perfect. But, by working together and learning from each other, it will help to ensure the experience is positive for as many students as possible.
  • When mistakes are made in response to this pandemic, working proactively with students means you can work together to take feedback easily and quickly in order to be responsive. Mistakes are natural, but it’s how you work together to respond to them which will mark your response.
  • Look back to your student charters. They are not just a nice wall decoration or meant to live on a dusty shelf! Get them out and start actively working by those principles set out. If you don’t have one, use this time to think about the ways in which working collaboratively is working ready to adapt and update yours later.
  • Speak proactively to Course/Academic Representatives to shape the learning experience. As we are all becoming more familiar with new platforms and technologies, be sure to take advantage of this to better communicate with reps in order to help you both get timely feedback and ensure the feedback process and loop is as streamlined as it can be. Students will be the only ones who authentically know what they learning experience feels like; so listen to them.
  • Following this, support your Students’ Union to recruit Course Reps! You will need to hear more from students than ever before, and this is an engaging way in which you can get honest and truthful feedback. It will also benefit students to be involved in shaping their university through what feels to be a difficult and uncertain period.
  • When sat in meetings, think about who isn’t at the table and needs to be. This might be someone from the Students’ Union, a student representative or even a missing University department who could contribute greatly to the discussions. Because you’ve got the people you think are most experienced around the table, it doesn’t mean they necessarily are. It’s critical to focus on getting lived experience of issues to the table, and if nothing else make sure that there is some student representation in all meetings.
  • Make sure you keep your students updated with what’s going on, and let your Students’ Union know what you’re doing beforehand. This is important, as it means SU’s can support and improve things where necessary with the student body. When you know what is going on, it is easy to forget that actually not everyone around you also does. Students want to know the answer to questions as well! Keep them in the loop; have space for open discussion; and actively encourage feedback so every student feels valued.

Isobel Hall is the Director of Strategic Development and External Engagement at Campaigns for Students.

You can follow Isobel on Twitter at: @isobelvhall

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