UK: Drive to involve students

Will Haywood has the honour of being the first student to join the 15-strong board of Britain's Quality Assurance Agency. Haywood is the academic affairs executive of the student union at Sheffield Hallam University and attended his inaugural board meeting last month. His appointment is part of the agency's commitment to engage students in its work. The agency says the involvement of students is integral to both internal and external quality assurance systems while Haywood says: "This is a great opportunity from the student perspective to make a difference."

As part of the audit process, students are invited to submit a written submission separate from the self-evaluation document written by staff at the institution being audited. In its annual report, the QAA found that although audit teams had some reservations about the quality and usefulness of students' submissions, all agreed they were important in providing the opportunity to reflect on the student experience, especially given the introduction of variable fees and the notion of the student as consumer.

Some institutions have difficulty recruiting student representatives and overcoming their reluctance to attend meetings. A Scottish survey found a third of institutions had problems of non-attendance, a third with representatives failing to take part in discussions when they did turn up while the rest were successful on both counts. Anecdotal evidence suggests the picture is similar in the rest of the UK, according to a report by the European Association of Quality Assurance in Higher Education.

At Sheffield Hallam, Haywood is a member of the board of governors and on the internal academic review panel. He said two of the four faculties had taken part in team building exercises with away days or residential courses for staff and students. These had resulted in much better relationships and full attendance at meetings. Students were involved in forming action plans for assessing quality, he said.

In the European report, Janet Bohrer from the QAA, noted that students are under more pressure than ever before with nearly 60% reporting that they also work and 71% of those saying they needed to work to pay for essentials. Some are under such pressure that one in four has mental health problems.

"It would be unfair of higher education institutions and external bodies such as the QAA to contribute to this pressure unnecessarily by highlighting student involvement in quality assurance processes over and above academic studies," Bohrer said.

But she found that students benefited from taking part in quality audits as in some cases it provided student unions with evidence and impetus for change across their institutions and led to less mistrustful and more positive relationships. Several universities reported "quick fixes", such as changing library opening hours, as a result of the student submissions, with the changes becoming permanent.

Relationships between staff and students can often depend on particular individuals who are elected on a yearly basis. This is being countered by some unions who are embedding quality assurance into their strategic plans, noted the report.

Haywood would like to see students become full members of audit and review teams as they are in Scotland. He likes the Scottish system of enhancement-led reviews but acknowledges it would be more difficult to do this in England. In Scotland, all the principals can meet round one table.