COVID-19: “As we need to listen to the student voice during these emergency times, we cannot lose sight of the need to keep doing so as we inch our way towards business as usual”

Written by Professor Jackie Labbe, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic), De Montfort University.

I would like to open this blog with a sense of where we had been going at De Montfort University (DMU) to enhance the way we engage with students and, as we call it, amplify the student voice, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

What we have been seeking is to turn up the volume so we can hear our students better – and we had been steadily complementing the representative kind of system where students act as course representatives in the usual way, with one where we regarded our students as the best experts on what it means to be a student.

So we have begun to work with our students as consultants, advisors and advocates, and really asking them to inform us about what they need – thus moving away from what can sometimes be an adversarial relationship to something that was much more about mutuality.

We also started a project called Engage, an attempt to reach out to students who were a little less likely to step up at that first call, trying to engage the disengaged. In these ways, we have been supporting our students to guide us, with projects that were led and advised on by them.

Then Covid-19 hit – and we were back into reactive mode. There was all the ‘suddenness’ we had to contend with, starting with the sudden closure of studios and workshops, followed swiftly by the sudden closure of computer labs, then the sudden closure of whole buildings. We had originally intended to keep our library open until the end of term but we suddenly had to shut that. We also tried to keep a study space that was computer-equipped open until at least the end of term, and equally had to close that.

So within a matter of days we had gone from a situation where we were working in partnership with our students to a situation where we were just telling them the next stage of things we had to do – and that we really had no choice about doing.

We tried to keep students informed as best as possible. Frequent communications went out from me to let our students know what was happening, but of course these were in the form of ‘we have had to do this’ announcements. We could not keep that up – we did not want to keep that up either – and we needed to start listening to our students again.

One of the first things we started hearing from our students, who were very proactive with us, is that while they recognised what we had to do and why we had to do it, their needs had not changed. We began to learn from our students about the things they needed that we had not anticipated; the number of students, for instance, who had no access to computer equipment other than what the University provided for them, or no access to reliable Wi-Fi unless they were on campus.

We were lucky in that our students exercised their ‘voice’ and told us the things we absolutely needed to know in this age of Covid-19. We worked as rapidly as we could to hear our students and support their needs – and worked on a lot of activities that many other UK universities have thought about as well: for example, no-detriment policies and blanket extensions, and meeting their needs as much as possible in terms of equipment.

Even within all this, of course, it was still mainly reactive. However, I have personally been in frequent contact with our Students’ Union Academic Executive officer, Laura Flowers – we have one-to-ones two or three times a week – and we have been working hard with the Union to ensure that our communications going out to students are reinforced by communications going out from them, and vice-versa.

We have tried as much as possible to have mutual communications messages, and Laura is on all our planning groups, both those that have reacted very quickly in our emergency moves to online teaching and examining, and the groups that we now have that are working on what the next academic year might look like.

So while we have not been able to carry on to the same extent with some of the student groups that we had before, we are absolutely determined to ensure that the student voice is heard in the planning that we are having to undertake. And the consultants, advisors and advocates that I referred to at the start of this article have continued working on their projects, adapting very quickly to communicating via Teams and other forms of digital engagement.

Additionally, the termly ‘Ask the expert’ event that I instigated a couple of years ago to address questions from students and offer them as much information as possible about the inner workings of the University, has continued. Through this group we have been able to give students a lot of background information and a lot of forward-looking information as well.

We have also started a strategic planning group which is working on plans for next year. One of the workstreams within that group is The Student Voice – this is entirely student-led, so we can ensure as far as possible that the student point of view on what it means to be taught and learn in an online environment informs the decisions we may have to make going forward.

We are also conducting a survey with our students to understand what the recent period has been like for them: what has gone well, what has gone less well, what they need us to do, and what they need us to take account of.

One thing that did hit us quite hard was that we were right in the middle of our module level feedback process as Covid-19 hit. Inevitably, this has had an impact on our ability to gather the student point of view of their teaching and learning during this academic year. We are thinking very hard about how this might work next year because even as we need to listen to the student voice during these emergency times, we cannot lose sight of the need to keep doing so as we inch our way towards business as usual.

In all that we do, we must ensure that we are still listening to the student voice and that we do not ‘do things to them’ or ‘throw things at them’ – that they are always part of the conversation, as indeed they are entitled to be.

Professor Jackie Labbe is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at De Montfort University, and was a panellist on Explorance’s ‘How can we capture the student voice in a time of Coronavirus?’ webinar on 13th May 2020


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