VP Education Interview and Manifesto Analysis: Ruth Brown

Interview

Guardian: As a postgraduate student, what will you do improve the way that postgrad students are represented by the SRC?

Brown: This year I was PGT Convenor. I think I’ve been very successful in increasing engagement between postgraduate student and the SRC. I started holding drop-in sessions in partnership with the other PGT Convenors. We held these monthly. We also sent out monthly communications ahead of these meetings for PGT students to communicate with them things that we are doing that are relevant to them but also to raise our profile by making them aware of who we are and how they can get in touch with us. Also, promoting services like the Advice Centre, which many aren’t aware of. Next year, I would see that that continues. I think that kind of engagement, that face-to-face interaction with PG student, is absolutely essential in order to best represent them, because when you meet with students face-to-face you get a much better idea of the issues they face across the Colleges, both taught and research students. Also, another one of my pledges is to have an Academic Committee of the elected Academic Officers on Council. I think that that will help to better represent PG Students because in that kind of context School Reps can also work with PG Convenors in a more supportive environment, allowing the Academic Officers to take forward issues that affect PG students. Whereas, at the moment I don’t think there is enough support for other Academic Officers on Council, like School Reps, to take forward PG students and take forward PG issues.

Guardian: Do you think it should be mandatory for all subject areas to record lectures and make the recordings available to all students regardless of their personal or academic circumstances? If so, what will you do to make that happen?

Brown: Personally I do, and a lot of that relates to some of my experience as an undergraduate at Glasgow. When I took psychology throughout the years there were podcasts. I know that’s not exactly the same, as it was purely audio and not visual, but having access to that kind of resource massively helps me with my coursework and exams. I would make it clear that having that support, even though I wouldn’t consider that I have any personal or other circumstance that might affect my performance, I think that kind of support for students is absolutely vital. […] As noted in the SRC’s Annual Report for 2013/14, we played a huge role in developing the policy of lecture recordings, and so a learning and teaching committee was set up by the University to draft that policy, and so in that it is noted that lecture recording will increase in the coming years, and that is a useful mechanism for us to continue to put pressure on the University to take that forward. Also, as mentioned, the formation of an Academic Committee on Council. Together the Academic Officer can better put pressure on the University because we can take those issues up at School level and at senior management level as well,  and as this is something that’s stated in the policy that commits to increase feedback between the consultation process for the development of new facilities on campus, to ensure that those facilities are available, and the ability to have lecture recording.

Guardian: In your manifesto, you talk about a research programme which offers paid placement to undergraduates conducting supervised primary research. In what way does that programme need to be developed and what can the VP (Education) realistically do to support that development?

Brown: So this is a project supported by the current SRC President, so as far as I understand this is still in the early stages of development. But, there has been significant progress in that she has met with Frank Coton, Vice Principal for Learning and Teaching, and he has given this his backing. So, realistically, I think what I would be able to do, depending on how far Breffni gets with that by the end of her term, is to take that forward and push this at college and management level. It’s a hot topic; it has come up at Universitas21 student summit, so it’s very much on the agenda for our partner institutions as well. It ties with another pledge that I have to increase the ability of students to apply for international placements. We have seen that other universities, such as Edinburgh but also the University of British Columbia, do have scholarship and funding for international undergraduate research programmes and opportunities, so it would tie in with that as well. Realistically, the other thing that I think I would be able to do, given that there is an expressed interest in developing this kind of programme, it would be typically be presenting that information and those proposals to the University. I think this is the kind of project that would be long-term, and I don’t think we are going to see this by the end of next year at all, but I think that progress can be made to develop such programmes.

Guardian: What will you do to improve the class rep system to close the ‘feedback loop’?

Brown: I myself have faced difficulties in communicating with class reps this year. One thing that I wanted as soon as I was elected to my current role was to access a list of my class reps, in order to invite them along to drop-ins and for them to know who I am so that they can take up the issues. Those lists weren’t available, certainly not to me anyway, and I think that was the case with all Academic Officers, and that was in my opinion quite a serious failing. So that has been rectified as of next year. In September, all academic officers will have access to a list of their class reps, and that list can be broken down so we can target just Level Ones or Level Twos or an entire School or whatever, and having that will massively improve communication with class reps. To use an example of what I thought was a really great way of engaging with class reps, was that one of the current Academic Officers on Council held a drop-in session which was extremely successful. […] I want to encourage that kind of face-to-face interaction with class reps, to improve the feedback loop. The academic committee I want to set up would be a vital way to support the Academic Officers in achieving this, for them to have that kind of encouragement for each other in order to achieve that.

Guardian: How do you intend to make sure that as many students as possible participate in the Campus Redevelopment consultation process as it continues over the coming year?

Brown: There was a series of consultation in January. I was very disappointed in the way that was conducted. The idea of the ‘text blast’ being used for undergraduates […], the following day an email was used to try and get postgraduates along. That was sent out on a Friday, so hardly any attended, and I know because I was there, so any in future consultation with students, I would strongly argue against that kind of method to engage students. It was ill-advised. […] There are better ways of trying to attract students to come along to the consultation events. Another way of trying to engage student, the current SRC President, VP (Education) and the Postgraduate Development Officer all sit on the new project board with the University for the development of the new Learning and Teaching Hub, and since they feed into that, it is vital that we feed into them. In order to do that I think it would be an idea for us to hold our own consultation events to get feedback from students, not organised by the University, but organised by us, the same way we did over the issue of translation dictionaries, and feed that information up to those who sit on the project board, and I will do that if elected next year. The Vice Principal for Learning and Teaching has expressed a commitment to continue to engage with students throughout the consultation process, and having expressed that commitment I feel that it would be much easier to hold him to account on that, and that is something I would definitely be doing.

Guardian: Are the University like to implement the policy which you are advocating, to have more conferences and forums for staff and students to share their experiences? Are the Colleges of the University likely to agree to that, and could this policy be realistically implemented within a year?

Brown: They would have nothing to do with the actual Colleges, so they would have no say in the organisation of what I propose.  So to use the SRC Education and Technology Conference that we’ve just had, which was for the most part student-led, and I think we can do that again next year. We have already had the offer from Universitas21. The Learning and Teaching Centre have agreed to provide funding for us to do that again. We’ve had huge support, so it would be organised by us and be student-led.

Manifesto Analysis

Ruth Brown intends to expand the platform on which students can express their views on teaching methods, because “students are experts in their learning.” Her manifesto seems management-focused, aiming for better organisation of the student feedback process. She wants to form a committee of academic officers “dedicated to continuing the work of the current working groups for assessment feedback and class reps, and other ongoing academic issues” and organise more conferences and forums to communicate students’ opinions to staff.

Increasing the feedback opportunities available to students is important, and presenting them in a range of formats could prove effective. However, Brown fails to address the issue of student engagement with the SRC. Many students are unfamiliar with “working groups” and what the SRC does already, and will probably wonder what yet another committee will achieve. Indeed, while Brown’s manifesto comes across as sensible, it does little to appeal to those least interested in the SRC.

Her plans to listen to more student opinions rely on her generating interest in her plans for conferences; there is a danger that only students who already take an active interest in the SRC will be heard.

However Brown does have some genuinely innovative ideas, such as her aim to develop a paid research programme for undergraduates, and continuing her involvement with Universitas 21 to offer students internship opportunities abroad. The short-term achievability of both of these things could be questioned (Brown herself notes this of the former in her interview), however this could be a success in the long-term.