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Student Engagement 2.0: partners, collaborators, or something else entirely?

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Students are more than just partners; they are a part of our higher education ecosystem too. But how are they shaping this world?

Louise Clifton explores what Student Engagement 2.0 looks like, and what three universities are doing right now to bring students into the heart of how they work.

What’s the next generation of this idea, the 2.0 of students as collaborators?”

We often hear about students as partners. Or students as collaborators. Universities are working hard, and many successfully, at bringing students in to co-create their experience whilst studying, but also to shape the university as a whole. But could we do more? What’s the next generation of this idea, the 2.0 of students as collaborators? What does true integration of students’ lives and their leadership look like when it’s fully part of the higher education ecosystem?

I’m talking beyond focus groups or sitting on panels for a year at a time. I’m talking about breaking through the boundary we’ve built between ‘students’ and ‘the university’. Creating a fluid relationship where students share leadership and responsibility for their university – as much as anyone else who works or leads, or whose lives are part of the University ecosystem too.

This kind of relationship is more like belonging to a family, or a social tribe, than a transactional relationship. It’s built on trust, openness and reliance on one another’s ideas and opinions from which we can make the best decisions for the university as a whole, at a strategic and a tactical level.

This will create organisations that are truly seeking the best ideas to solve the world’s biggest, most intractable challenges.”

What can flow from this more committed, lasting type of relationship will be greater understanding and respect for different insights that come from across generations, cultures, backgrounds and lived experiences. This will create organisations that are truly seeking the best ideas to solve the world’s biggest, most intractable challenges.

The good news is, we’ve already started the journey. Late last year, I began exploring how university workforces are preparing for the needs of future students at the Staff Development Conference, and as one participant pointed out ‘we have a wealth of experience to draw on’. This then, is perhaps where we should start to get a handle on what the 2.0 idea of student as equal partners looks like.

Students in university life

How do we bring students into everything that we do?

This is the question that’s always on the minds of colleagues at the University of Lincoln. When I asked why, Katie Willson, an Organisational Development Trainer at the University, replied “it’s our culture, students are part of our community and aren’t seen as different to anyone else. We’re all working toward the same thing.”

Nearly a decade ago, the idea of ‘Students as producers’ was ventured by Professor Mike Neary at Lincoln, then taken up by the Vice-Chancellor, and it hasn’t been let go of since. Students help recruit and welcome staff at all levels – from catering managers to members of the senior leadership team. They take part in the ‘Lincoln Welcome’, an hour-long workshop for new staff with the main aim for delegates to leave with the question ‘What can I do and how can I help?’. These workshops are attended by 90% of new staff.

Lincoln’s Insight Scheme, where some students are mentored by a member of the senior leadership team over the course of a year, often leads to reverse mentoring in turn, enabling both parties to experience being each other’s shoes. And these are just two of a myriad ways Lincoln has brought students into the heart of their university.

Our own colleague and a student at Anglia Ruskin University, Rhiannon-Breeze Harris, recently told me about a working group she’s involved in to help create a sustainability mindset amongst new students. Created in collaboration between students and colleagues in the Global Sustainability Institute, the project will seek to draw on experiences from across the University to make positive change happen.

At the University of Dundee, a Graduate Careers and Professional Development Certificate is run for executive members of the Students Union. Developed from a shared desire from the SU and University to develop peoples individual and collective leadership and skills for their current roles and future careers, the first cohort’s alumni are already developing a spin-off community interest company focused on student leadership.

In turn, these skills will feed back into Dundee’s student body, as well as benefitting students who take part from other institutions.”

“If it wasn’t for this programme, it [the community interest company] might never have happened, 80% of my gumption to start the business came from doing it”, says Charlie Kleboe-Rogers, alumnus of the first cohort and co-founder, along with fellow student Olaf Postola, of Yellow Armadillo. The aspiration for Yellow Armadillo is to enable students to thrive in their future careers through skills development, coaching and mentoring initiatives. In turn, these skills will feed back into Dundee’s student body, as well as benefitting students who take part from other institutions.  

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. I found that when I started asking people ‘how do you bring students into your University’s world?’, people became fired up either by what was happening at their university or what they’d heard of elsewhere.

Good citizenship doesn’t belong to any singular university or institution.”

Going back to that point made at the conference, we really do have a wealth of experience to draw on. Key, though, will be how we share our practices with each other: good citizenship doesn’t belong to any singular university or institution. Examples like these can, and should be, celebrated and communicated across the sector – not as marketing spin but as peer to peer learning; what worked, what didn’t, how can we make it better, bolder.

Leadership that allows, no, insists that we make room and breathing space for innovative thinking about student leadership must be made. And not just where you expect. We can all make our mark.

By Louise Clifton

Louise is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.

With thanks to Katie Willson from the University of Lincoln, Lynsay Pickering and Charlie Kleboe-Rogers from the University of Dundee and our own colleague Rhiannon-Breeze Harris for sharing their insights.

If you would like to know more about how we can work with you to enhance student engagement, please get in touch with our Academic Director Paul Gentle.

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