The importance of Student Representation: overcoming student ‘apathy’

Involving students in the running of the Academic Departments has never been more important, and is in the interest of both staff and students in the new fee ‘régime’.

 

Other than one of the many parts of the University of Kent’s Code of Practice, student representation is an essential component in the running of the University. As a student representative, time and time again, I hear excuses by staff members trying to justify why they did not ask students what they thought about this or that issue because students: “do not turn up at meetings“, or because they “don’t read or respond to the emails we send them about meetings“, or that they “do not want to get involved” altogether.

But is the presence of students really properly utilised in meetings that themselves are usually staff-focused and chaired by staff? Do students feel that they are on equal grounds in meetings relative to the members of staff present, and are they encouraged to actively participate in meetings? Are the items on the agenda for the meeting explained to student representatives, and do they have any idea of what really is being discussed behind the acronym-packed University jargon? Very rarely.

Regardless where one stands in the debate about whether to consider students as “Customer” or as a “Member of the Academic Community”, it is indisputable that students’ expectations will rise with the recent tripling in tuition fees. The fact is that on whichever side of the argument one stands, involving students is equally important. If students are considered as customers seeking to get the most ‘value-for-money’ out of their degree, then they deserve to have a say in how are taught and for measures to be taken should they not be satisfied. If however one considers students as part of the scholarly community, then like academics, they also have the right to influence how their department is run.

The rights of students aside, it is in the interest of staff members and departments to involve students. First, the student’s perception of how a particular module is being taught is the most useful and accurate way to see whether or not the teaching methods are effective or not. Why wait until the results of the NSS surveys to find out? Second, I am sure many staff members will agree with me that students can bring a much fresher and down to earth viewpoint in meetings, as many of the decisions taken about Learning & Teaching directly affect them. With so many Kent students coming from many different backgrounds, they are the ones who can quite often provide a different insight complementing the perspectives of staff members. Third, meetings where students are present should be more student focused, so that they feel involved and that their contributions are needed. It is not surprising that attendance at meetings of student representatives very often drops after the first few meetings: if students do not understand half of the agenda items and therefore end up not contributing, they do not feel their presence is important -and rightly so! However it is the role of the Chair of the meeting to make sure that all feel involved, and even to prompt the most timid members present to speak.

The vicious circle of student apathy needs to be overcome by Schools. Making meetings more student-focused, actively encouraging involvement, and recognising the dedication and work of student representatives, are the only ways to reverse the vicious circle into a virtuous one. Moving forward, both academic and administrative members of staff should not only be encouraging, but also rewarding student involvement in the running of academic departments. By “encouraging” I do not mean just sending out emails, but also lecturers publicising it at the beginning of lectures and seminars; by “rewarding” I do not mean politely thanking students at the end of the meeting, but giving them official recognition of their involvement and praising their work in recommendation letters for example.

 

When one looks at the number of societies and sports clubs that are run by students, the thousands of volunteering hours which students are rewarded for each year, and the quantity and range of extra-curricular activities which Kent students get involved with, it is saddening that so many Schools do not do their best to make use of this huge ‘volunteering capital’ which students are willing to invest in worthy causes.

Give students a real chance to get involved and make a difference, make them an essential part of decision-making within departments and you will be surprised by how well they will rise up to the challenge; overcome apathy and place value on participation in civic duties, thus preparing them to be the engaged citizens of tomorrow.

 

Léo Wilkinson

Social Sciences Faculty Representative

Kent Union

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