Students are indeed at the heart of an increasingly diverse higher education landscape. Their views and perspectives need to be heard and understood in a period when higher education is being reshaped, and not only because they bear more of the costs of their education.

HEFCE’s work with students

HEFCE has worked with students and their representatives for some time, and this work has gathered pace since 2011. I’ve been involved in a number of these initiatives. The Students’ Green Fund, supported by £5 million of HEFCE funding, has involved over 350,000 students in a wide range of ambitious sustainable development projects, from greening student homes to ‘up-cycling’ cafes and sustainable transport for physically disabled students.

I have also worked with the Student Engagement Partnership (TSEP). Based at the National Union of Students, TSEP works with HE providers and students’ unions to develop and enhance student engagement and partnership. It has developed a toolkit to enhance student engagement in further education colleges offering higher education, and has helped Jisc to develop a tool to benchmark the student digital experience. It’s good to see that GuildHE is using TSEP’s principles of student engagement in their report “Making Student Engagement a Reality: Turning Theory into Practice”, launched today.

Our most recent student-centred work is the statement of good practice in the event of course changes or closure, which was developed in partnership with the NUS, the Association of Colleges, GuildHE, Independent Universities, Study UK and Universities UK. We’re also working with providers to enhance the information that is available to prospective students to help them choose the course that is right for them. A joint consultation by the four UK higher education funding bodies puts forward a series of proposals for improving information about learning and teaching, and the student experience. Your views would be very much appreciated.

The role of students’ unions

My involvement in this and other work has brought home to me the importance of student-led activity to the student experience and students’ unions in particular. Students’ unions are very much the ‘student voice’ and in the forefront of student engagement and partnership. They provide training for course representatives and for the sabbatical officers who will be student members of universities’ governing bodies, and they enable students to practise the skills that they will use in employment and as engaged members of society. More broadly, they help students to find their voice, whether by talking to their university through elected representatives or in responding to the many issues on which they wish to be heard, locally and nationally. We were pleased, for example, to receive 28 responses from students’ unions to our recent consultation on future approaches to quality assessment.

For these reasons, HEFCE has been keen to support the development of students’ unions and the professionalisation of their activities. Over the years we have funded a number of initiatives, including a students’ union quality mark and a project to develop good governance practice – there is now a Good Governance code of practice to help students’ unions improve their governance arrangements, which includes a self-assessment tool to help them ensure they are meeting principles like democracy, openness and accountability.

Rising to the challenge

The Green Paper then is a renewed challenge to all of us to reflect on our engagement with students and their representatives.

Its proposals on teaching, widening access and new providers are intended to increase student choice and enhance the value of the student experience, but there isn’t a standard-issue student. Students are socially and ethnically diverse; they can be young or mature, full-time or part-time, home or international, undergraduate or postgraduate. The questions that interest me are: How should that range of student interests be captured? How can the diversity of student voices be heard? How should the range of student experiences be recognised?

At HEFCE we have been grappling with these questions for some time. We have good experience to offer to the discussion, but our early thinking on the Green Paper is that new and different approaches will be required if students really are to be “at the heart of the system”.