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Valuing student voice, engagement and partnership

30 May 2023

President Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, University of Galway

When we at University of Galway launched our Strategic Plan Shared Vision, Shaped by Values in early 2020, we committed to ‘being here for our students, our society and our planet’. As President of University of Galway, who had been a student here in the 1980s and who throughout my academic career values an engagement with students, this was important to me as I know it was to many of my colleagues. We thought it worth articulating, arising out of our commitment to be a university ‘for the public good’.

It’s fair to say that the years of Covid that followed tested perceptions of that determination as we often needed to make decisions that we thought were in the interests of our students and their welfare – but not all our students always agreed.

When I became President of University of Galway, the first thing I did was to meet the then President of our Students’ Union (SU) in his office as a symbol of my commitment to students and to going to them, to their place. Since then, I have endeavoured to meet each Students’ Union President in their place on their first day to discuss their agenda for their year in office with them. In 2022, when I met with our current SU President, Sai Gujulla, one of the items we discussed was the possibility of a partnership agreement between our University and our students. There were good working models in other universities and we both felt it would be a statement of intent to signal a commitment to working together for the benefit of our students.

Out of that came the agreement that he and I signed in April 2023, an approach which I believe might be of interest to other Coimbra Group member institutions. The purpose of the agreement is to ‘enhance the ongoing working relationship between the University and the Students’ Union based on the values of openness and respect, in a spirit of collaboration and positive intent, and with meaningful results that deliver mutual benefit for the university community we serve’. It covers several areas of meaningful engagement in particular committing to Student-Centred Decision-Making and Student Participation and Engagement: ‘In articulating specific goals in these areas, together we are emphasising the importance of – and the value we place on – the student voice, student engagement and student partnership in the ongoing evolution and development of our university’.

Student-Centred Decision-Making affirms the important and mutual benefit of having a more student-centred approach to relevant university activities. It includes inter alia a commitment to reviewing membership of relevant university decision-making committees to ensure appropriate student representation and voice is achieved. It also commits to gathering and, most importantly, acting on student feedback, through surveys and ‘real-time feedback’ but also working with University of Galway 100, a sample of 100 of our students with whom we do in-depth focus groups on issues of interest, and the SU Council to tap into the collective wisdom of students and to ‘sense-check’ various initiatives. Student Participation and Engagement affirms the important and mutual benefit of increased student participation and engagement in relevant university activities, including collaboration on events and campaigns and achieving university strategies and policies together.

The agreement was noted with approval by our Governing Authority as a positive step in student engagement. Interestingly, approval was not unanimous on social media or in the local media. One columnist in the local press commented that the agreement ‘will be greeted with dismay by anyone connected to the college that once had a proud record of radical student activism’.

University of Galway counts the current President of Ireland, an activist voice, and former Government Ministers whose policies made for radical change, particularly in education, among our alumni. As a strong supporter of student activism, I am tempted to say that the agreement gives such activism voice – but then I am reminded that students have voice and it is not for me to give it. As somebody who was once a student myself and who came into academic life – as did many of my colleagues – out of an interest in education and student wellbeing, the commitment in this agreement is to listen to that voice, radical or otherwise, and respond to it meaningfully.

It is now incumbent on us to show that engagement works: University of Galway is proud of its radical students – past, present and future – and this agreement is in part to make sure that such voice is not simply blowin’ in the wind.