Student consultation: the best business tool never used?

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Where students are not consulted as partners in decision-making, the University misses an easy opportunity to improve relationships, services and image.

The University always says it has consulted the students, so how come no one can ever find a student who has been consulted? This question was put to the Vice-Chancellor at VC Question Time last year. It was an amusing question, technically inaccurate but is a very valid point. Allow me to expand:

Over the summer break, all the kitchens and bathrooms in John Snow College were renovated. The student consultation process for this renovation involved me sitting in a room looking at some visualisations and eating biscuits. The proposals were very good and the new kitchens are excellent. The College staff had considered what would be most suitable for the students before designing the new kitchens and from the consultation there was little I, as a student, could add or suggest.

This is not to say that the process of student consultation is unnecessary; it in fact highlights the importance. In this instance, the renovations could go ahead with the college knowing that at least one student agreed to them and that the designs and proposals were suitable. Had there been no consultation there would be no way of knowing this.

Indeed, the college did not consult on the installation of cooking timers. This was, in my opinion, a mistake and now all of the students in college accommodation are unable to cook after 11:10 at night, which they are consequently upset about.

In some instances there seems to be no student consultation at all. From a business perspective alone this makes no sense. Speaking to DSU president, Archie Dallas, the other day he commented, “What is the point in trying to build something without asking people what they want?” Indeed, it would sort of be like trying to build a new administration headquarters in the middle of an historic city without considering its architectural identity or like building a massive glow in the dark suspension bridge leading to an empty field. Both structures I actually rather like.

Without the student body and without appropriate Student Union involvement, the University would not survive in its current form.

In terms of a business relationship this would be unthinkable. Most medium-to-large sized companies will hold regular focus groups and take customer feedback as an important part of shaping corporate direction. But, as Archie pointed out to me, this is not business relationship. Students are not customers at the University.

The only power a customer has is to recommend to a friend or, if not happy, to never ‘shop there again’. The relationship between students and the University is more sophisticated than this. Students are partners in the University. Without the student body and without appropriate Student Union involvement, the University would not survive in its current form.

At a most simple level students fund the University, it is therefore in the interest of the institution to provide the facilities and services that the students request and require.

As partners in the institution, students should be entitled to representation on every committee and decision-making body within the governance of Durham University. In practice it may not be possible to do this – I accept that student representatives have no place in dictating the University applications procedure or staff payment structure – but as a world class academic institution, Durham University should be aiming for world class student representation and a truly world class student experience. A sentiment which literally oozes positive public image.

This may involve students dealing with sensitive or confidential information, but Durham University students are not children. I don’t think it beyond student representatives to respect the sensitivity of certain documents and the sanctity of the private meeting room. In the words of your Student Union president: “students have proven time and time again that we are as reliable in terms of confidentiality as staff can be, […] if not more so.”

University staff are actually very good at figuring out what students want and the University is good at providing this. The fact the whole institution hasn’t crumbled is not a reason not to strive for better student consultation. There may well be issues on which student views are not valuable but there are equally issues for which they are the most valuable piece of information the University could possibly find. When it comes to ‘student facing’ issues, the experts actually are the students.

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