RAISE your expectations of student engagement

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Sometimes I go to conferences and worry that I’ll be bored witless, that I’ll come away with buzzwords and platitudes. But at the fourth Researching, Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement conference, I found a communtiy. What’s more, I found a fervour around student engagement which I hadn’t necessarily picked up on during my previous conference experiences. RAISE is network of academics, professional service and students’ union staff and students with an interest in student engagement. The conference was made up of many fascinating sessions and interesting debates. As well as being genuinely exciting, there is something authentic about the ‘student engagement community’. As RAISE Chair Colin Bryson said, ‘all higher education institutions have some sort of student engagement agenda’, and from what I picked up during the conference these are the key points which had my mind churning over the following weekend.

First amongst these is the concept of student community. This is oft references, both positively and negatively, but little understood. Where students’ affinity can’t easily be pinned down to a programme, faculty or institution (let alone across all of these), Student engagement, from the discussion arising at this conference and in scholarship on the subject, underpins the connection between an institution and its students. Engagement here is a culture, an open acceptence that each member of the university plays its part in the HEI ecosystem, and indeed that student engagement relates not only to staff engaging with students but vice-versa, as well as students engaging with their peers.

Secondly, ‘self-authorship’ is a key issue which is was a strong theme throughout the conference. The notion of students being ‘in the driving seat’ of their educational experience (Baxter & Magolda, 2007). Ths relates not just to the way students shape their degrees with electives or routes, but how they shape their personal and professional identity through the curriculum and extra/co-curricular activity they participate in. For a long time we have considered this to be an employability agenda, which we all know the government and sector seem obsessed. The concept of self-authorship is more powerful than employability, it puts the onus on students making decisions and carving out their own career, not for the industries who want them but for the life they want and choose. That university should empower the student in this way could radically change the current trajectory of HE.

The third (and somewhat unsurprising) element is students as partners, which I have presented on previously. Partnership is a form of student engagement, or to paraphrase Abbi Flint from the Higher Education Academy, ‘a pedagogic rationale, a focus on learning relationships as well as working relationships, and is contextual’. One issue with partnership is that it is being touted as the solution to all university problems, when really it is an attitude. Examples of partnership approaches solidify this, but it is ‘pedagogic rationale’ or professional approach to interaction. More importantly, it places both staff and students in partnership, which is important to remember.

Thus, the role of staff in student engagement and partnership is in need of further consideration. A lot of the focus of the conference was on staff better engaging students, but we must also remember that students need supporting to understand how to fully engage with staff, and resultantly this will impact on their engagement with the institution. At the recent SEDA conference in May, there was a visible tension between the urgency many feel they need to change their approach, but the concern that this will be one-way traffic without reciprocity within the rest of the university community. This isn’t an unfair ask, but exposes an evidence gap in the current scholarship and activity on this issue. Student charters and learning agreements are but one part of this, and in many ways this is an institutional concern which needs development across all levels of institutions.

For more information, check out the RAISE website: http://raise-network.ning.com/

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