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Question 26 and the new student opportunities frontier

Monday 17-10-2016 - 16:26

The new NSS questions only ask about students’ unions’ role in academic representation. But we nearly didn’t have a SU-focused question at all. What does the shift mean for our movement?

Q23 is dead

The National Student Survey for undergraduates in Higher Education is just over 10 years old. Our movement was instrumental in setting it up in the first place – as a way of raising the profile of student feedback – and we have won countless improvements locally and nationally because of it since.

One of our great achievements was the inclusion of a question specifically about students’ unions - the famous Question 23 - which many credit with the best part of a decade’s worth of investment and remarkable development in university students’ unions as students’ unions became part of the league table game.

But the survey needed a revamp to reflect a fast-changing sector. A review was launched and as it progressed it appeared likely we were about to lose the question about students’ unions altogether. HEFCE have now shown us the new questions. Luck spared us that disastrous outcome.

We now have a block of student engagement questions including a new Question 26 to focus on:

The students’ union (association or guild) effectively represents students’ academic interests.

Gaming and reframing

There will clearly be much anxiety about new ‘league table’ orders. To be honest this is fine by me. Hopefully it shows the futility of competing amongst ourselves and presents an opportunity to recognise a different selection of unions for a change – those doing great stuff but shaded by a canopy of organisations enjoying never-ending Q23 sunshine.

The more interesting point is how this changes the game in the long term - shifting perceptions of what students’ unions are for; changing how we describe ourselves; developing tactics to maximise our scores.

I’m optimistic we can ride the situation to our advantage.

We have already talked extensively throughout SU34 and NUS100 about the need to be known as organisations valuable to education and to society. We have talked about injecting social purpose into every aspect of our work and investing in impact evaluation.

If we want it to be, the new Q26 can be a spark to progress. Something to help us reposition everything we do – from advice to opportunities and enterprise – in terms of the difference we’re making to education for today’s and tomorrow’s students. We can use this as an opportunity to get out and talk to students about how what we offer is in their academic interests, whether they realise it or not.

Last year my Prove Me Wrong project scratched at this surface – creating an evidence base for the links between societies and retention, sports and mental health, SU democracy and civic participation. Some students’ unions have shown themselves to be leaders in this field - Leeds Uni, Glasgow Caledonian, Teesside, Birmingham City - and I hope this year we can all build upon their foundations.

Our future success as a movement requires resisting the urge to play a one-dimensional game - ploughing resources into course reps and ‘you said, we did’ posters. We have a strong history of enriching education in many ways. Our task now is one of proving that. If we can’t show the educational benefits of letting students run their own societies, for example, Q26 ensures we won’t be given the licence to do it for very much longer. Alternatively, if we can, we can ensure a long and prosperous future for students’ unions.

Raiding the bank

Excitingly we also know the new NSS will also offer an optional bank of questions about the wider students’ union offer.

These questions have been developed with SUs over the past three years. Whilst the exact wording is not yet published, we know they are around the SU creating a sense of belonging, the SU having a positive impact on the local community and the SU developing life skills.

SUs will also be given sign off for all the optional bank questions by institutions, so we all should be seeking to have these conversations. It is my understanding if SUs want the optional bank they should be able to have it.

Finally it may be possible if enough of us choose to have the SU bank, that we would meet the threshold for national data to be published.

New DLHE rising

In all this talk of ratings and rankings there is something very interesting happening in one corner of the HE landscape. The Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, taken annually by recent graduates, is emerging from a separate review.

Paul Clark, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Statistics Authority, describes the review as “shaping our collective understanding of the role of graduates in the economy and society, for the long-term”. Meaning he’s interested in making sure DLHE evaluates universities against their purpose, not just the health of the employment market.

A first consultation suggested seriously the use of subjective wellbeing (SWB) indicators as a measure of universities’ performance. This is stuff like graduates’ life satisfaction, happiness, levels of anxiety and trust in other people.

The evidence presented for doing this is threefold. Firstly students today are much more interested in the prospect of intangible things like fulfilment, satisfaction, excitement, happiness and friendship than in working towards graduate-level employment. So SWB indicators tick the student-interest box.

Secondly intangible qualities developed by students (like curiosity, risk-taking and resilience) turn out to be much more important determinants of early career performance than skills developed. So they also tick the economic-interest box.

And thirdly these indicators tell us about a wide variety of positive social behaviours (like social capital, trust, collaboration and attitudes to diversity) as well as general healthiness. So that’s the social interest angle.

The consultation just *hints* at the opportunities presented for students’ unions by this shift towards SWB indicators in DLHE:

  • Raising importance of investment in extracurricular life
  • Preserving autonomy for student-led opportunities
  • Ensuring more worthwhile, socially beneficial and challenging opportunities
  • Pushing universities to break down barriers to participation, particularly for Black students
  • Improving collection and analysis of SU participation data

NUS and 16 students’ unions replied to the first consultation, and another phase is due to come out soon. In principle we’re hugely supportive of a DLHE survey with SWB indicators (note DLHE’s links to the Teaching Excellence Framework and fees rises) but still in the early stages of knowing exactly what this means for our movement. There has been some opposition to these changes from universities, who will be reluctant to be responsible for/judged against these kinds of subjective wellbeing.

For me Q26 and perhaps the new DLHE feel like the start of a new era for students’ unions. Every dark HE reform cloud has a silver lining etc. With some leadership from us, the new game could give students’ unions a framework for chasing educational and social change and being rewarded for it.

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