In the month of June this year, I had the chance to attend the International Institute on Students as Partners at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. The conference was attended from delegates from some of the leading universities around the globe. The conference was centralized on the role of Student Engagement and overall aim of the International Institute was ‘to build the capacity and understanding of faculty, staff and students to develop, design and implement initiatives to promote the practice of students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education’. In addition to this, the summer school focused on removing the barriers between staff and students such as resistance, experience and logistical barriers which often spoilt the relationship.
Student engagement is a big motivational tool for students as it makes them confident over time, they inherit a sense of ownership while running the projects and overall it makes them metacognitive and they learn about their own strengths and weaknesses. Students inherit a number of employability skills and it further develops the way they think. It shapes a new identity for students as they are no longer only students, but also act as an equal stakeholder in development of the curriculum. In addition to this, the academic staff and the Universities also gains a lot from the student engagement process. They learn a great deal about students’ psychology and the problems surrounding the university. It also helps the staff in winning the confidence of students, which may further help in the classroom to smoothen the chemistry between staff and students. On a personal note, I experienced that if the recommendations by the students are promising, the University was willing to make suitable changes in its policies.
Quality Vs Quantity
On day 2 of the institute, one of the speakers suggested that quality of the projects should be preferred over the number of projects. And soon I found myself in a middle of discussion, where we found out that many universities don’t have a purse to spend on the student led projects. For instance, University of Manchester spends a very little amount on the development of these projects, and the department is not well funded. The plight was same for American universities, who were still in the early stages of this process. And as a result, the number of student-led projects were quite low compared to our university and University of Malmo, Sweden.
As far as University of Westminster is concerned, I believe that we have come a long way and our student-led projects are very matured in content. The department which overlooks the quality of the projects is very specific and structured in its approach. The academic support provided to the students are experienced in the subject and deliver relevant input. In addition to this, the students have a lot of time to cross-check their work and in case of any misapprehensions, students can always reflect on the content. And that is why in my view, I believe that it is important for universities to focus on the quality of projects after they have a healthy number of projects to run in a year.
The Reach Out: Early Engagement
As the adage goes, ‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail’, it is very essential for students to be early engaged, say in their first or second year, and then keep building up by learning. The students joining in their first year can team up with a more experienced member and learn the various aspects of running a project such as planning, organising, controlling and executing. This will prepare them for future where they can take the lead and manage their own projects. It was my first year at university when I started my first project and over last one year I have grown in my role. My first year’s project was full of challenges, specially the part where I had to communicate with my peers and academics. But the projects I ran afterwards, were easier to manage, as I knew where to find resources for literature review and how to communicate with other stakeholders.
On the final day of conference at McMaster University, I served as a speaker on the Student’s Panel. And one of the questions were, how to motivate students to get engaged with the initiative? One of the fellow panelists suggested that not every student can be motivated, but the aim should be to encourage everyone who is motivated on an early stage and provide them useful resources. Now students who are engaged on an early stage can visualise the possible outcomes after a period and they can also assess the risks which saves time and effort.
The Marketing: Poster and Beyond
Autumn 2016 was my first interaction with the Co-creators department at my university. Interestingly, I spotted the details of the initiative on a poster at the Students’ Union office. I kept digging up for further details and found out that the deadline for application has already passed, and thus I missed the chance of working on a project. So, I applied in the next cycle for my first project and it was well received by the relevant department, where my recommendations where noted.
Back in 2016, I was attracted only by a poster, but today I believe that the department can use other channels to market the fantastic opportunity it gives to students. We can reach out to a diverse group of students by informing them about the initiative. Previously, I was employed by the Students’ Union and Westminster Business Consultants (a Junior Enterprise set in the University of Westminster), and at both my workplaces I met some intelligent students who can carry out these student-led projects professionally. Many of them are self-motivated and the Students as Co-creators initiative can be used as a mere tool to make them employable. Lecture shout-outs, fresher weeks were some of the various channels discussed at the conference for imparting the information to students.
In the end, it is a win/win situation for both universities and students. As on one hand it gives students a chance to run their own projects, where they can learn and practice the whole process of project management and at the end they can celebrate their success and present their work in front of an audience. On the other hand, universities can benefit a lot from these projects as they can inherit the recommendations made by the report compiled by students. The final report often includes a literature review, a survey or interview carried out on students and the report reflects the reality of the ongoing situation. Finally, I will sum up my thoughts in the words of Marc Kielburger who says, ‘Give young people a chance, our generation may just surprise you’.
By Satya Shekhar