Go back

Lived experience

Martha Longdon argues that listening to students is more important than ever

Stepping onto a university campus this summer, it is easy to forget that little more than a year ago, many students weren’t allowed to be there. Lockdowns and restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic severely impacted the way students interacted with their courses, their institutions and each other. Many were told to stay away from their student accommodation; lecture theatres stood silent and empty; and study, work and social events were all conducted via Zoom.

In recent weeks, campuses have been thriving again: labs and libraries bustling with students, sports teams hosting their final training sessions of the year and an extensive programme of conferences, showcases and social events taking place, restoring much of the vibrancy we’ve all so dearly missed.

It’s easy to look around and feel that things are back to ‘normal’—business as usual. But a keen eye might notice that footfall is still below pre-pandemic levels. There are more MS Teams meetings in the calendar than there used to be. And students are still struggling to navigate the transition back to in-person teaching, with concerns around belonging, assessment and future prospects very much at the forefront of many students’ minds.

The higher education policy landscape has also changed. New senior figures at the Department for Education, the Office for Students and Universities UK, alongside a renewed focus on pandemic recovery, have brought about a shift in priorities. Quality and equality of access still top the agenda, but expectations around how these are delivered have changed—not just in the minds of policymakers but also for students, employers and taxpayers.

The challenge is that the events of the pandemic were unprecedented. While it may feel like that word was used a little too often, the reality is that Covid-19 imposed new barriers in higher education and exacerbated existing inequalities.

Student voice

Few decision-makers experienced a higher education journey anything like the one students were experiencing. Yet the pace at which the sector had to work to keep up with changing restrictions meant that often student voices were not in the room when key decisions were made. At the same time, student engagement had never been more essential because without that lived experience, it was difficult to understand what students needed most.

Last month, speaking at the IDP Connect Insight Day, I asked attendees to raise their hands if they interacted with academic reps or sabbatical officers more than once per term. From my vantage point, around a third of those in the room did. I was reassured to see those hands go up—but having built my career around student engagement, I was a little surprised that there weren’t a few more.

There’s a pervasive myth in higher education that if you allow students to have a say in their education, they’ll simply ask for their studies to be made easier: that listening to students will automatically result in dumbing down and lowering standards. In my experience, the views of students tend to do quite the opposite.

Improvements to access

During my sabbatical term as president of a large student union, the feedback I heard from students frequently included requests for lecture recordings, 24-hour access to libraries, better access to specialist software and more skills and employability support sessions.

As a student, when one of my exams had to be cancelled for reasons beyond the university’s control, my classmates declined the offer of allowing their coursework to stand for the full module grade; they wanted to take the exam to prove to themselves that they had properly understood the module content and to prove to employers that they had fully met the outcomes of their course. Students want easier access to their courses, but not easier courses.

Yet in student responses to last year’s National Student Survey, the availability of learning resources had decreased overall in comparison with 2020, and only 48 per cent of student respondents said they were content with the delivery of learning and teaching during the pandemic.

Student panel

I’ve been involved in student and stakeholder engagement, in one form or another, for most of the past 10 years. I feel particularly lucky that I caught the student voice bug early, and that I had frequent opportunities to share my views and see how this positively influenced change within the institutions where I’ve studied. I’ve been privileged to bring a student perspective to sector-level policy exercises, and since October 2018 I’ve been a member of the board of the Office for Students, the higher education regulator in England. Some of the work I have enjoyed most, and am proudest of, has been through my involvement in the OfS student panel, which I’ve chaired for the past three and a half years.

The role of the OfS student panel, which launched in 2018, is to advise the regulator across the breadth of its policy development activity. The panel’s membership of 16 students includes voices from a mixture of backgrounds, providers, subjects and stages of study, each joining for up to two years. Some students join with experience in student engagement, having been course representatives or sabbatical officers in their own institutions. Others join with no formal representation experience but bags of passion and enthusiasm for improving the student experience. Some even join us before they enter higher education and they have gone on to have some of the biggest impacts on our work.

Each brings their own expertise and lived experience, without which it would be difficult to regulate in the interests of all students. Most recently, the panel has advised on blended learning, the Teaching Excellence Framework, the National Student Survey and harassment and sexual misconduct on campus.

The piece of work I am proudest of is our statement of expectations for providers with isolating students during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our recent Student Engagement Strategy refresh sets out how the panel, alongside other student engagement activities, strives to keep student interests at the heart of the OfS’s work.

Our panellists have worked tirelessly during the pandemic to ensure policymakers understand the challenges students face and have put forward proportionate and implementable solutions to support pandemic recovery. The final meeting of our current membership will be on 22 June, although they met for the first time in person only a few weeks ago. I’m exceptionally proud of, and thankful for, the way they have worked together over the past two years.

Martha Longdon is the outgoing chair of the Office for Students student panel. She writes here in a personal capacity and views expressed are her own.