Student Engagement: how far have we come since Robbins?

Dawn Smith  On 22 May I was at Lancaster University for the Student Engagement Symposium: Enabling Student Engagement and Partnership.  It celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report as part of the University’s own 50th anniversary celebrations.  The Robbins report changed the landscape of higher education, establishing the so-called ‘Robbins principle’, which declared that university places ‘should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’. For further details see here.  Before Robbins, only 4 to 5% of the population (mostly male) found their way to higher education.  The rest, as they say, is history.

In the spirit of Robbins, the symposium addressed the question of students engaging with their university experience.  The keynote from Paul Trowler (Lancaster University) focussed on ‘Illuminating the concept of ‘student engagement”, identifying three linked axes of learning, structure and process, and identity.  ‘Student engagement’ is one of several terms which is bandied about within the HE sector at the moment and I was interested in Vicki Trowler’s working definition: ‘student engagement is the investment of time, effort and other relevant resources by both students and their institutions intended to optimise the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students, and the performance and reputation of the institution’.

I’m afraid that the QAA’s representation of student engagement, outlined in their slightly twee video doesn’t quite rock my boat, but it does at least show the central role which students play in moving higher education forward.

During the second keynote, Bill Harvey (until recently Director of QAA Scotland) drew attention to the fact that Scottish universities led the way in including student reviewers and that England is only just catching up in this area.  Having been involved in several School-level reviews over the past couple of years, I’ve always been enormously impressed with the contribution which students have brought to the panels.  Bill also remarked that there is a tendency across the Scottish sector to say ‘If we’re doing better than England, we’re doing ok.’  This certainly struck a chord with me and I think we need to look further afield than just comparing our work with our nearest neighbours to offer our students the best.

During Paul Ashwin and Murray Saunders’ first workshop on ‘Students’ engagement with learning’ there was lively discussion about the role of evaluation and enhancement in student engagement.  One consensus was that citizenship was an essential part of engagement: that the learning experience had to correspond with life post-university.  My discussion group were conscious that there should be a reciprocal relationship in the learning and teaching forum, with dialogue and a sense of partnership between teachers and learners at all levels.

The second workshop which I chose was about ‘Identity and belonging’ led by Jan McArthur and Caroline Tutton-Wood.  We discussed the challenges of engaging ‘non-traditional’ students and the importance of identity and a sense of belonging for students, regardless of their background.  Feedback (as ever) featured highly in discussions and I really like Jan McArthur’s analogy of ‘boot grit’ feedback.  Her research (partly carried out here at Edinburgh) describes the anxiety felt by students when they have a knowledge gap, which niggles at them like grit in a boot.  In a situation in which students feel that they have the right to ask questions, they also have the expectation of a response, and in the boot grit scenario this is delivered confidentially, allowing students to share control of their assessment.

Bringing the day to a close, Debbie McVitty from NUS noted that simply celebrating the student voice was not enough.  The changing dynamic as students become consumers is certainly interesting and the need for mutually effective dialogue is perhaps more important than ever if students are to be fully engaged.

Ten years ago this month I graduated from Lancaster and it feels like the sector has changed enormously just within that decade, but looking at the Robbins report, it shows how far the higher education sector has come.  It is exciting to think that, if we give them the opportunity, today’s students will help to define the higher education system which will be in place in ten and fifty years’ time.  It’s our turn to listen.


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