President's News — 26 August 2022

Psssst – hey UniMelb, want to improve your QILT score? UMSU’s here to help!


Psssst – hey UniMelb, want to improve your QILT score? UMSU’s here to help!

If you have been watching the news, you will see that UniMelb has taken a bit of a shellacking in the 2021 Quality Indicators for Teaching and Learning (QILT) Student Experience Survey (SES).

I think it’s fair to say, absolutely everyone would have a hard time feeling satisfied about anything during a lengthy global pandemic. So perhaps it’s fair enough the University hasn’t done everything right in the eyes of students. However - NGL – it feels like it’s been a while (thinking well before the pandemic) since the University seriously listened to students about what we want and need.  

There’s been plenty of talk about what students want. Like Freud’s famous “woman question” … answered by men – the Uni has been busy asking itself for a long time what do students want? And then answering it for us.

In 2019 the University circulated its Green Paper on a proposed Melbourne Student Experience Enhancement Project (MSEEP). While broadly welcoming any initiative by the University to improve the student experience, UMSU noted that yet again the University was defining the student experience, rather than asking students how they conceptualise their own experience.  UMSU’s response to the MSEEP green paper made a number of points, among them that students don’t define their experience in the way the University had chosen to frame it, and MSEEP’s focus on academic experience was too narrowly cast.

Students do more than just study at university, and consequently the student experience relates to all aspects of a student’s interaction with an institution. Our experience encompasses our academic, social, and physical experiences of uni life. Unfortunately, UMSU’s submission was totally ignored. Not one of our concerns was addressed or even acknowledged in the final whitepaper.

So much for the student voice.

Although no one was listening back then – after the recent QILT results - maybe it’s worth airing this again. The University of Melbourne is not just a body corporate - but a body politic. That is, the University’s governing act of parliament establishes that students are a defined constituency of the University. This is why there must be student representation in institutional governance. Students are members of the University, in the same way that staff and senior executives are, and they are equal participants in an academic and social community that depends on their engagement and participation.

UMSU’s position is that the notion of constituency is the thread that ties students together. Constituents have rights and responsibilities associated with membership of the body politic and the legitimate expectation that their participation will be welcomed and encouraged. Importantly, this right to participate is unfettered – there is no role for other constituents of the University to limit or define the role of another unilaterally.

In other words – student participation requires students to be actively engaged in institutional discussions about student experience from the point of conception. Students have a legitimate expectation that when University management determines that it is necessary to act on improving student experience that the very first conversations are with students themselves. That as constituents of the body politic, students must be included in discussions of what the term student experience means. Not just included actually – but listened to and engaged with!

The University has recently started discussing the idea of ‘amplifying the student voice’. This is an important step and commitment to it is welcomed, but given the University has such a history of ignoring the student voice – there is some work to do in learning from its past.

Individual student experiences are important. However, individual interests and concerns can easily become diverting, and without common threads it is easy for them to be split off, become diluted, and disappear into the cacophony of many individual voices yelling to have their specific interests heard. No matter how much the University is committed to listening to all of these different voices yelling separately at once, it is going to be impossible to hear.

UMSU represents many voices, and we have and will continue to present them powerfully in a coherent and compelling way.  If a newfound commitment to actually listen to and engage with the student voice is to be meaningful – the University needs to resolve the reasons for its failure to do so in the past. Why it has chosen to largely ignore the voices UMSU has been putting to it for the last decade and a half.

That’s a serious question for the University, but perhaps I can venture my guess at the reasoning.

The University sees student politics as an annoying business, full of budding politicians who are furthering agendas that the University finds inconvenient. The reality is that UMSU has over 55 000 members who regularly engage with the organisation to discuss their experience and seek support with their concerns. The UMSU Advocacy Service assists over 3000 students a year with tens of thousands of issues raised with the service annually. The Service has produced comprehensive service reports for the last decade detailing the problems students face in their day-to-day dealings with the University and recommended ways to improve their experience. The fact that the same issues come up again and again over that decade of reports is disappointing and shows no one has been listening.

UMSU is contacted daily by students from every part of the University voicing concerns and asking for help. On the back of this collective voicing of student experience, UMSU has mounted hundreds of campaigns – in 2020, over 13 000 students in first semester and almost  17 000 in semester 2 signed UMSU’s petition for a no disadvantage WAM system at the University (WAMnesty), a series of submissions opposing draconian changes to the special consideration process, multiple submissions representing the student experience on a range of other student facing policies, input into the University’s Review of Assessment, Semester 1, 2020, a report on the student voice on COVID-19, and  students being denied appeal hearingsyadayada.

So, UniMelb, if you’re serious about listening to students, perhaps start with a trawl down memory lane, catch up on what we’ve been telling you for the last decade – more compassionate special consideration, policies that support rather than punish, trust us, we’re not all out to game the system, and give us a chance to dispute your decisions rather than dismissing our appeals without even hearing them! There’s a start.

Let’s start this next chapter with some active listening and genuine engagement with what students are telling you. UMSU has your back on that!

Sophie Nguyen 
UMSU President

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