Today, GuildHE Students’ Union Network is having its first meeting of the academic year. This provides an excellent opportunity for students’ union representatives to come together and share best practice. We know that our institutions often have relatively small students’ unions, so it’s our job to help them understand what’s going on in the sector and in government, and support them to represent their student bodies. Universities benefit from having effective students’ unions.
No one needs reminding of the scale of the COVID-19 crisis and it is improbable that I will be able to conjure a metaphor to adequately highlight this. Without exception, every facet of university life has been affected and uncertainty about the future makes forward planning uniquely challenging.
This applies as much at the national level as it does at the local level. That is why GuildHE now has a Students’ Union Network representative on its Executive Board, sitting alongside the heads of institutions. It is of fundamental importance that students are represented in rooms where decisions affecting them are made. We are the first representative body to do this.
It is in this context that the student voice is more important than ever, to help shape institutional responses to changing circumstances. This will invariably lead to better policy, that is more likely to be understood and supported by students, who generally understand the strain that institutions are under. It is also the perfect opportunity to show that previous efforts at student engagement were serious and that students are listened to when it matters the most. One of the first things that we did at GuildHE, as COVID-19 was starting to become of increasing concern for institutions, was to publish a five point checklist. This quickly grew exponentially, but right from the beginning it has been clear that engaging students effectively in the decision making process gives institutions a better chance of navigating this crisis in a way that keeps everyone pulling in the same direction. Getting the small things right can be just as important as the larger things and it always pays to have an ear to the ground.
In many ways, we are approaching the most important period for this as we plan for the rest of the academic year, navigating through the ever changing policy landscape. There are major challenges ahead as renewed restrictions are applied across the United Kingdom and we look towards Christmas and the potential for further outbreaks. Difficult decisions are going to have to continue to be made; students understand this as well as anybody else, with many having already been at the sharp end.
There was never a widespread expectation that term would resume without compromises having to be made by everyone. The key here is engaging with students as early as possible in informing these decisions and crucially providing them with the information that they need to be able to contribute constructively to such discussions. Institutions might well have students (or student representatives) sitting on boards that discuss papers and finalise decisions, but this alone is not enough. Students need to be involved in the process from the earliest possible opportunity as university communities seek to come together and offer the best possible experience to all students and, indeed, to prospective students as we look forward to 2021.
This blog was co-written by Dom Trendall and Christian Black