The struggle of the Student Rep system

The Courier's writer's weigh in on the crumbling Student Rep system.

Joseph Caddick
14th March 2022
Is the Student Rep system getting a bad rap? Image Credit: Max Pixel
Student reps are a bit of a mystery to some, and some get a bad wrap. But what do student really think of their reps? Courier writers weighed in with their opinions on the system.

Joseph Caddick:

I’ve been a Student Rep since my second year, and now I’m halfway through my fourth. In that time, the Covid-19 pandemic and repeated bouts of industrial action have ensured that study has been almost constantly disrupted. If ever there was a time when Reps were needed, it’s been these past couple of years. That is, if we were listened to.

Last year was an absolute mess, which I think anyone who studied at Newcastle last year would tell you. There was the whole “will they won’t they” over the introduction of safety nets, which ended up with something that was a safety net in name only. This of course caused a lot of tension between students and the executive staff in charge of these decisions. After little movement on their end, it left many of us School Reps lacking faith in the decision-making process.

We had to fight long and hard for the photography days last July to provide a decent attempt at a celebration of the hardship students had faced during that academic year. Thankfully, this ended up happening, and was a rare success story where a compromise was able to keep everyone happy. Such cases were, and continue to be, highly uncommon, as concerns are often downplayed or trivialised when they are raised.

It is important that students are able to express their concerns during the transition back to a more conventional university experience.

This year, the stringent Covid-19 measures are being relaxed, but that doesn’t mean the impact of the pandemic has gone away; many students are struggling with their mental health, the sense of community is only just rebuilding, and the student experience has generally been sidelined to focus specifically on academic matters. It is important that students are able to express their concerns during the transition back to a more conventional university experience.

It is important to note that on a school level, in SELLL there is a mutual respect that leads to productive conversations and practical solutions to the problems that students face. When you go beyond this level, the student voice becomes unheard, evoking feelings of being a kid who is saying the right things, but being ignored because they’re a kid. When we’re supposed to be peers and colleagues to staff, this is extremely disheartening.

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Image Credit: Newcastle University

With the industrial action currently taking place at Newcastle (which I very much support), mitigating the impact on students should be a top priority, as it understandably causes a great deal of anxiety and concern in even those who support the strikes. Students in their third year have had close to their entire course marred with disruptions, and to have no public plans to effectively mitigate this shows that the student voice is not considered anywhere near as much as it needs to be.

In meetings that I have attended, I have heard some troubling language used to describe the role of Student Reps. The Vice Chancellor said to Reps last year that their role to was be the bridge between staff and students, though this ignores that we are very much Student Representatives, and if students are angry then we have every right to convey that. We have also been described as pushing an agenda which is not in line with the student opinion. To me, this is deeply unfair, and suggests that senior staff do not trust Student Reps. Having been a Rep for so long, I know the work that goes into trying to gauge as much opinion on every issue we raise. Although it can be difficult to reach every single student, those who can’t be reached are unlikely to engage in any form of student voice, whether it be Student Reps or something else.

Newcastle University has consistently failed to listen to our voice in times of crisis.

For a university that claims to consider student representation as “a key part of how they engage with students”, Newcastle University has consistently failed to listen to our voice in times of crisis. While some effort has been made in a handful of cases, most of the time it unfortunately falls short, and students are left picking up the pieces. This leaves me wondering if the system is fit for purpose, and if there should be additional systems in place to make sure our voices are heard.

Anonymous:

Posters exist across the Armstrong Building, asking students “do you think your history course is perfect? If not, tell us and become a rep.” The school of History, Classics and Archaeology (HCA) is always desperate for Course Representatives, we were practically hounded about the matter back in first year. In the years I have been a course rep, it has not always been a pretty sight.

I have been involved in tense negotiations asking for information from lecturers. In the first Board of Studies (BOS) meeting after the March 2020 lockdowns had begun, I posed a simple question to lecturers: what will happen to our placements? My peers were very concerned about the matter and as a rep I had no choice but to raise the issue. I raised it carefully, however – we knew plans could not be concrete due to the lockdown but we just wanted to know the options being discussed. I made this clear to staff when posing the question.

What followed felt like a dressing down from staff, who stated they could not be sure (which I had already acknowledged) and that our fieldwork was still a priority (which was somewhat reassuring). In all honesty, it felt like a cop out of an answer. I asked the same question again a meeting later, this time in the first BOS of the 2020/21 academic year. Once again I asked for any sort of updates and an acknowledgement that plans were privy to change, students just wanted to be in the loop. The same member of staff began to chastise me again for asking, and a different member of staff actually had to intervene on my behalf to clarify we students only wanted in the loop. What was a simple request for updates felt like a telling off for daring to ask about a crucial part of our degree, something my peers and I were rightly concerned about. Ultimately the lecturer consigned and we were given more updates, which did reassure peers. I should not have had to fight that hard for more clarity.

What was a simple request for updates felt like a telling off for daring to ask about a crucial part of our degree.

By far the worst incident I witnessed during a meeting was in a Student Voice Committee meeting (SVC). A student with extra needs had come before the committee to appeal the decision by Archaeology to not enforce ReCap (remember that?!?) in lectures. This student could not always attend lectures and had to rely on the notes of peers, which often was not enough. Staff in the SVC refused to budge however, with one member of staff and the student talking back and forth for an entire 30 minutes as to why the student and fellow students with extra needs could not have ReCap. As a rep, I had never felt so helpless – here was someone in need of help and a lecturer stuck in their ways. The system has changed now with mostly online lectures in HCA as part of the blended learning approach. I don’t feel like hearts and minds have changed along with lectures though.

As a rep, I had never felt so helpless – here was someone in need of help and a lecturer stuck in their ways.

The system of Course Reps in theory facilitates the idea that HCA want improvements and positive change. For the most part, the system does work and staff/students collaborate to make the university better and representative for everyone. But the system does not always work and lecturers do not always listen. This is why we need course reps more than ever.

Elizabeth Meade:

The list of issues faced by Course Reps is short but nevertheless important. Firstly, it is hard to communicate with students, many of whom aren’t aware of Course Reps or what they do. Some courses have a group chat so it is easy to advertise, but not everyone is in the group chat and not everyone is willing to speak up on that platform. Additionally, students tend to depend on Course Reps to represent complicated issues that require lots of advocacy, rather than stepping up to make their own voices heard. While many students are very busy and I don’t have a problem with bringing up whatever they want me to talk about, I think they would benefit from speaking up about their own concerns, because that would show staff that course issues are widespread and not limited to three or four Course Reps.

Staff are frequently not receptive to the concerns of Course Reps.

Staff are frequently not receptive to the concerns of Course Reps. The prevailing attitude in the Chemistry department is that students are complaining too much. For instance, I and others pointed out that not granting a PEC for a student forced to work unexpected overtime would be unfair to students who need to support themselves. However, the response I received was that since a student knows they have a job, any work-related obstacles are not an unexpected circumstance. This behaviour implies that staff are out of touch with the realities students face and pretend to not understand student concerns so they have an excuse to not address them.

I’m not personally negatively impacted by many of the issues I bring up, but I still think they are important because they impact many students. Therefore, I feel less personally hurt by staff reactions and more confused. I don’t have to work to support myself, and therefore don’t face employer issues, but I can still feel bad for students who do and face educational conflicts because of it. Why can’t staff do this?

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