Reflections on Setting up and Developing a Student Panel in the Centre for Student and Community Engagement (CenSCE) at Nottingham Trent University (NTU):
Some Guidance for Fellow Listeners…
We are a department tasked with driving forward the institution’s widening participation and social mobility agendas. Placing student and pupil voice at the centre of this process is critical in making our programmes relevant and responsive to changing needs and demands.
Good planning needs a good blueprint. Unfortunately, we could not find one that was tried and tested: a step-by-step collection of issues to be thought through if you are considering setting up a similar mechanism. We are committed to this course of action and would like others to do the same – so the below highlights our achievements and our mistakes so you can avoid them.
In one form or another, in different departments and with different employers, the authors have experience of setting up this process on three occasions.
The Office for Students (OfS) supports greater student engagement within its own structure and within Widening Participation (WP) activities more generally. The case for student and broader stakeholder voice in developing Access and Participation Plans (APP’s) and within co-design activities and evaluation has been well made. What then is the best means to incorporate student voice into student related actions?
CenSCE decided on the development of a student panel, modelled on the OfS version, as it offers an immediate contact point and the potential to build up long term and trustful relationships. We want the panel to both respond to our needs and issues and to set its own agenda. This cannot be done if the contact point is not formalised and regular – it is thus very different to convening surveys or the occasional focus group.
We benchmarked what was happening within the sector and then developed a working group to take forward and implement recommendations. This group was informal and non-hierarchical to match and foster the way of working we wanted to induce in the panel. We curated formal ‘Terms of Reference’ and a ‘Working Process Document’ (on how things happen in practical terms) which any comparable scheme would need to develop. These are available on request. Through a process of discussion and feedback we developed the following aims:
- To provide a ‘student voice mechanism’ for relevant stakeholders.
- To provide a ‘critical friend’ function over key CenSCE Strategic Planning documents such as, but not limited to, the Access and Participation Plan (APP).
- To provide an ‘accountability function’ regarding stakeholder involvement in team activities. This will take the form of discussing existing stakeholder relationships and plans with CenSCE managers. It might also take the form of discussions relating to how student/stakeholder voice is being incorporated into activities.
- There is also an expectation for participants to take part in CenSCE evaluation and co-design
Decision Making and Power Relationships:
The decision-making process is inevitably longer and more complicated the more stakeholders you involve. Whilst this will take time to adapt to, in some measure, it has been recognised that not every decision or process comes within the Panel’s remit – limits exist. Establishing boundaries takes time.
We would like our panel to be an active voice within the department. If student voice is limited because, ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ then that needs to be challenged and the panel need to be confident enough to make that challenge. However, change takes time.
To push things forward we have discussed relative power relationships and highlighted the point that, in effect, student power in this context rests in knowledge and information other stakeholders do not possess (and highly value). However, establishing priorities takes time.
There is political utility in having a participatory voice mechanism – even if it does not actually do anything or change anything when action occurs. The panel itself is the best mechanism to challenge existing ways of working. However, change is more likely to be S shaped than linear and diagonal – trustful relations need time to develop.
Voluntary or employed?
We took a prompt decision to employ students rather than ask for volunteers. Having an employee creates an expectation of work being done – one of the aims we had in setting up the panel. So far, we have been lucky as the group has been broadly representative of disadvantaged groups within the student community – if this were not the case then we would consider taking positive action.
After an initial burst of activity, it has proven difficult to maintain momentum. This is for several reasons. Firstly, there was some doubt over the correct procedure and process to be used on the part of our colleagues. Secondly, if there happens to be no opportunities for co-design or policy input (as none are taking place, which we experienced to some extent during the pandemic) – what then happens with the panel? To prevent prolonged periods of hiatus, between assignments, we will be attempting to include our student panellists as student researchers within our normal evaluative and research processes. This has real potential benefits for the students, the panel and CenSCE alike.
We are in this for the long term and do not expect a short-term revolution – and we do not think you should either. Scheme evaluation will take place in year three (we are now in year two) so we need to start pushing things forward. Whilst we need to be careful, to not lead too much, we (CenSCE staff) have been too remote and need to be more directive – at least until such a time as the students tell us not to be!
Some speedy suggestions
On reflection there are some top tips we would offer to speed things up and make the entire process come together more efficiently:
- Before you even recruit have a clear aim and purpose to include when you advertise. Students are more likely to come forward and stay engaged when there is a clear objective. Providing some steer and sense of vision at the very beginning may have aided more action on all sides.
- Be clever with your application form. To ensure you recruit students who are representative of a diverse student body, use clever questioning to gauge their knowledge of the barriers that underrepresented groups in HE experience.
- Be clear with your colleagues. Colleagues need to know what the panel is in order for them to use it. So, educate your colleagues – brief them on how to use the panel and why they should.
- Have tangible outputs and quick wins. At the start of the project have a couple of activities or events ready to work on. An immediate impact will be rewarding and help to maintain motivation for future challenges.
If you would like to chat through any of the above then feel free to contact:
Jon Hoskin-Campion (Lead Research & Evaluation Coordinator)
Liz Radice (Student Experience Officer)
Dr Amy Manktelow (Project Support Coordinator)