Totalling over 43,000, students at the University of Edinburgh are significant stakeholders in their institution. As a result of this, their voices and experiences are all the more important in shaping the strategy, direction and ambitions of their University now and for the future. This ever-important task is the responsibility of Student Members on the University governing body, the importance of which I most definitely did not contemplate when I ran for election as a Students’ Association President. However, I quickly found my feet, with a Court meeting in my first week of taking up office, and throughout the year gained a useful insight, helping to shape the levelling up of the University estate, improving student experience and the response to the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.
All eyes on the student
One of the great privileges from my experience as a University Court member was that the Students’ Association President was afforded a report as part of the regular business of meetings. Not only was this a great benefit for the student voice, I felt that it would often transform the dynamic of meetings and was useful in grounding Court members in the experiences of their key stakeholders, the students. It was an opportunity to provide updates on the work and developments within the Students’ Association but also talk more generally about progress in student experience and feedback we were hearing from students. The subsequent conversations generated by my report were productive and wide-ranging and crucially, centred discussions on the real challenges facing students. The inclusion of such a report led me to appreciate the value in which the University Court held the Students’ Association and hearing from the experiences of their students.
An unlikely bond
The diversity of thought and experiences within the membership of university governing bodies is extremely vast with members from a large variety of sectors and organisations. Whilst I came into those meetings with a few years of my Undergraduate degree under my belt, others came in with years of experience at executive level of multi-million-pound organisations, sounds daunting right? Yet, our shared ambition for excellence for the University community transcended those experiences and allowed us to appreciate and value each and every contribution. I came away counting my new critical and strategic thinking skills but knowing that my articulation of the student experience allowed others in the room to think differently about where the University was at and where it needed to get to.
Representative vs. Governor
As one of the few elected members on the 23-strong University Court, I would typically have to anticipate challenging scenarios that sometimes put my role as a representative at odds with my obligations as a governor. In my experience though, I came to understand that usually what is good for the University will also benefit students, but more importantly, what is often good for students, is extremely beneficial for our Universities. It is in these situations that the training I received from Advance HE at the New Scottish Governors event was most useful, allowing me to navigate and appreciate where my voice could be most powerful as well as acknowledging my responsibilities.
With an unexpected takeaway from my year in office being a strong appreciation for effective governance, I also took away a great respect for the responsibilities with which university governors have in steering our institutions on the right course, futureproofing them for future generations of students and academics. Yet it did make me wonder, have university governing bodies become too high-level and removed from issues on the ground hampering strategic progress, and is a voice at the table enough or can we go further in learning from the stakeholders in our institutions?
Andrew Wilson is the former President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association and Student Member of Edinburgh’s University Court. Andrew was a member of the University of Edinburgh’s Remuneration, Policy and Resources, Nominations and Estates Committees. Andrew is currently the President of the Una Europa Student Board, a ‘European Universities’ alliance.
Andrew will be leading a session on 'Engaging with the student experience' at our New Governors of Scottish HEIs event taking place on 20 October 2020. Find out more and book your place.
The event forms part of our Governor Development Programme (GDP) supporting Governors and governance professionals in HE. Find out more.