Why does a scholarly community matter?
Does it really matter whether the student body in College HE feels a sense of community? After all, surely College HE is typically akin to “going to work” or “CPD”, rather than the all-encompassing Alma Mater that stereo-typifies student life at university? It perhaps matters for two categories of reason. The first highly prosaic. The second seemingly more poetic.
Prosaically, a new question appeared in the National Student Survey (NSS) in 2017 – “I feel part of a community of staff and students”. Questions mean measurement. And the outputs of measurement require a managerial response, especially when a question is not scoring well across the entire sector. This imperative is enshrined in the QAA’s UK Quality Code: “Effective student engagement supports enhancements, innovation and transformation in the community within and outside the provider, driving improvements to the experience of students.” (QAA, 2018).
Poetically, it seems “only right” that College HE students should have the opportunity to enjoy a scholarly community, and the institutional synergies this brings. One that they have helped shape. One that meets their needs. One that is possibly less of a pre-cast institutional ideology than the university Alma Mater? This, admittedly aspirational, perspective tallies well with the concept of students as change agents (Healey, 2013) and it also relates to the cultivation of a community of practice (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015). The latter requires the presence of the domain, the community, and the practice and was used to anchor the brief study below.
The current environment
The authors facilitated a workshop at the AoC London Scholarship Conference in May 2019. Positive and negative “elements” relating to Student Scholarly Communities were ascribed by participants to one of the three dimensions of Communities of Practice (Domain; Practice; Community).
Elements were then coded by the authors using the following definitions:
- Structure – elements that are dependent on ways of organising
- Attitude – behavioural elements
- Senior Management – elements that can only be driven or influenced by the senior team
- Advocacy – elements that require emotional support rather than resourcing
- Resourcing – elements that have an extra budgetary implication
The 138 responses were balanced evenly (70/68) between positive and negative elements.
Overall Attitude (24) and Advocacy (13) raised the most negative elements, and not Resourcing, which is perhaps surprising. In fact, Resourcing overall attracted more positive elements than negative (13 versus 9) as did Structure (22 versus 18). Attitude and Structure were the “hottest topics” with the most elements (positive and negative) cited.
For Domain, which was overall more positive than negative (18 versus 13), participants felt Senior Management could do more (3 negatives versus 1 positive) to support the “things we care about”, whereas the “How” of Practice might have been a more obvious target. Structure was very positive (5 versus 1) suggesting parties knew how they wanted to organise student scholarly communities.
For Community, the most obvious feature was the weight of negative elements (31 versus 16) suggesting that aspects of “who cares about it” were problematic for promoting and developing the student scholarly community. Attitude (12 versus 6 positives) and Advocacy (9 versus 3 positives) were the most strongly negative. Structure was also seen as an issue (7 versus 4) possibly hinting at who was not being empowered to care.
Finally, for Practice, things were brighter with 36 positive and 24 negative elements, suggesting “how we do things together” could work as long as enough people cared or were helped to care more. Advocacy (7 versus 2), Structure (13 versus 10) and Resourcing (7 versus 4) all showed a strong positive slant.
To summarise the key findings, the most pressing issue for participants by far appeared to be insufficient people caring. Generally, the structures and ways of organising were there, but attitudes and issues associated with emotional support were a problem. Resourcing and senior management buy-in were seen as less significant challenges than one might have anticipated.
It seems possible that Colleges are not creating a sufficient level of engagement and belonging within their HE Student Scholarly Communities. A “space” is being created, and Colleges know the practical steps to take. But is it the right physical, emotional and/or virtual “space”? Do students see the value? What behavioural/attitudinal changes need to take place for them to care more and see the benefits and value? How do we make engaging with a scholarly community more emotionally “safe” for students?
From our snapshot, Domain and Practice are manifesting reasonably well, or at least Colleges know how to make them work, but Community needs the most development. Specifically, students (and to an extent, staff) interacting and learning together around a scholarship agenda at a provider level. College HE students often have a somewhat limited definition of what community consists of, want it defined for them and in turn reject what is provided, or focus on physical and social spaces as the ideal.
Thomas (2012: 71) might suggest the following are likely areas for improvement: “clear expectations, purpose and value of engaging and belonging; development of skills to engage; providing opportunities for interaction and engagement that all can participate in.”
But this has to be moderated with our opening remarks. HE students within colleges often experience a conflict between their busy lives and their socialisation as scholars which affects their acceptance of the scholarly community. For the employer-sponsored student, or the higher level apprentice, the course is often just part of their in-work identity.
It also seems likely that the Community of Practice needs to function more holistically in this context before students can become change agents and Healey (2013) himself admits that this agency is the exception rather than the norm. However, it is interesting and highly significant that many of the conditions for the fostering of a Community of Practice appear to have evolved, often through intuitive accident rather than design and planning. The next steps are quite possibly to (a) map current activity against Community of Practice theory to identify consistent sector-wide gaps and (b) address the behavioural, emotional and engagement/belonging issues in the Community dimension.
Richard Pearce is Director of HE at East Surrey College. Alam Begum is a former HE Student Governor at East Surrey College, and a Senior Youth Worker at Surrey County Council
Healey, M (2013), “Students as change agents”, keynote presentation to “Staff-student partnerships: What is partnership?” University of Leicester, 27/11/13.
QAA (2018), “Information, Advice and Guidance – Guiding Principle 3 – Student Engagement” [online] available at: https://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/quality-code/advice-and-guidance/student-engagement [Accessed 9 July 2019]
Thomas, L. (2012). “Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change” [online] Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/what_works_final_report.pdf [Accessed 9 July 2019].
Wenger-Trayner, E. and Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015); “Introduction to Communities of Practice”, [online] Available at: https://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/ [Accessed 9 July 2019]