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Academic Rep Conference: Tackling Equality In Higher Education

Another year, another Academic Rep Conference!

Well, it is slightly different, since last year it was the Course Rep Conference. This year, we built on the success of last year, expanding the topics discussed to consider our 2019 theme of equality in Higher Education. I was thrilled by all of the conversations, debates and interactions that went on throughout the day and I hope that all attendees found it useful! For those that weren’t able to attend, or those that want a quick summary of the day, here is a quick breakdown.

Plenary discussion

The Conference kicked off with a panel discussion that delved deep into the topic of academic representation: getting down to the bottom of what representation truly means and how it can be used effectively for everyone. The panel included Vice Principal Quality & Standards David Gilbert, our PGT Rep Charlotte Gauthier, our BAME Rep Renee Landell, and NUS VP Higher Education Amatey Doku.

The panel debated whether academic representation can ever represent everyone. This involved experiences from the panel as well as larger discussions surrounding what representation even means – and how we can get beyond the issue of engagement!

As some final food for thought, “representing student voice” and “representing student interest” may sometimes be in competition and how do we approach this issue? Perhaps the topic for 2020 Conference is set!

Workshops

Over the course of the day, we had four incredible workshops on offer – these enabled a great expansion of topics to discuss with lots of interaction so people could dig their teeth into issues relating to equality in Higher Education. In the inclusivity training, attendees learnt about privilege and the various obstacles facing students, and how we can act to overcome these.

The personal tutor workshop proved incredibly engaging, with varying discussions regarding the purpose of personal tutors and how students would want to interact with them. As is the case with a lot of things at Royal Holloway, discussions centred on the sharing of best practice, with vastly inconsistent approaches from departments.

Another workshop looked into the BAME attainment gap, this session got everyone to evaluate what they believe are the main contributing factors, both in teaching and institutional barriers, and how these can be overcome! This term, we at the Students’ Union are conducting research into this at Royal Holloway with our TSEP project!

In the commuting student workshop, it was outlined how this is a demographic of students that is increasing and one that has thus far been disadvantaged in access and quality of experience. One of the primary debates was around lecture capture – yep, that debate is still going on. 

Keynote

The keynote address was all about contextualising local issues in the wider Higher Education sector. In my opinion, this is a really importance aspect of Conference, a chance for us to take a step back from the bubble of Royal Holloway and see all the surrounding influences. This involved me discussing the current events in the sector – ranging from tuition fees, inflation, student number caps, population statistics and how this puts pressure on the ability to ensure a fair, equal and rewarding Higher Education experience for all. The keynote address also involved Deputy Principal (Academic) Professor Katie Normington whom gave an update on the College restructure and the reasons for pursuing change. This was followed by some fantastic questions from students and I have ensured that students will once again have a chance to direct any comments and queries to the College with an open meeting on Friday 1 March.

Fireside Chat

The Fireside Chat is a fantastic edition to Academic Rep Conference! It involved a quick sit down with a guest to casually discuss certain issues – think of the Ellen show, crossed with Graham Norton and throwing in a fake fireplace. This year, I sat down with Amatey Doku, Vice President Higher Education at NUS to discuss three rather large issues. We began by discussing his work in addressing the BAME attainment gap, one of his key pledges, and how the work so far is being collated into a document that will be released in the next month or so!

We then moved onto the second of Amatey’s big projects this year, Brexit and the People’s Vote. Amatey detailed the journey of this movement, explaining how it began with discussions to ensure the protection of fundamental priorities for Higher Education, and when these weren’t promised to be protected, the People’s Vote movement emerged. Again, this involved fantastic engagement from attendees of the Conference, asking questions during and after the chat, regarding key topics such as Erasmus provision and EU student status.

Finally, we discussed the very future of the student movement. It’s no secret that NUS is in a difficult position but this doesn’t mean that hope has left the student movement. Indeed, it means that this is the time to reflect and work on empowering students like never before.

It was a great Conference and for now, the curtains have fallen on Academic Rep Conference for another year. As always, Conference begins discussions and is by no means the end of these discussions or campaigns. Continue to work alongside your academic reps, and get in touch with me so we can continue to lobby, represent and empower your voice and interests.

Jack O'Neill // Vice President Education