One of the busiest days I have in my role as Vice President Education is the day of Senate. I chair our Senate Reference Group and then meet with the other student members of Senate, and finally, we go into a bustling three hour Senate meeting where the concerns raised can have a massive impact on the student experience, so we need to get it spot-on. It can be exhausting, but exhilarating, and I love it.
The Senate is the academic authority of the Open University which meets four times each year to consider business that relates to the academic work of the University both in teaching and research. There are currently over 100 members of Senate including six student members who are decided by the Association:
• VP Education
• The Student Member of The Council
• Three of our Central Committee Representatives, appointed by the Students Association’s Appointments Committee.
To help the six student members of Senate prepare for each of their meetings the OU Students Association Senate Reference Group (known colloquially as SRG) was convened.
The purpose of SRG is to act in an advisory capacity to the ‘Senate 6’ and to provide the opportunity for us to draw on the lived experiences, views and opinions of a range of other students. We currently have 40 student members of SRG from a diverse range of backgrounds, ages and regions, which allows for a greater depth of understanding of the key issues that come before the Senate. Before the meetings, we have wide-ranging asynchronous discussions about the upcoming papers on a dedicated forum space. Then we can have a focused real-time discussion when SRG meets virtually via Teams on the morning of each Senate, this allows us to consider the business papers in much more depth than doing just one or the other.
At the meetings, the members discuss as many papers as time allows. We try to make sure all papers get attention, but if some have been subject to plenty of input in the forum – that could mean that there is still much to discuss or that we have already made some decisions, so it is up to the Chair to manage that tightrope effectively.
The interesting discussions generate a large amount of information and opinions which the Senate 6 then consider in a separate meeting in between the SRG meeting and Senate. Between us, we clarify exactly what we might want to raise at Senate, but we are not mandated to take the views of SRG-the role of SRG is purely advisory but vital to ensure that we see the bigger picture as much as possible.
Senate June 2021
These notes are intended as a taste of the Senate and/or SRG meeting and not a detailed record.
The main discussion items were:
Report from the Chair
From conversations we had at SRG the Senate 6 decided it was crucial that we raised concerns that had been brought up, even though they didn’t really relate to the paper on the table. We asked what actions are being taken to address student concerns about the contentious issue that arose with the Gender Critical Research Network launch recently and were assured that the President and VP Equality, Diversity and Inclusion would be involved in the ongoing discussions with the Vice Chancellor's Executive and will be able to update students as and when there are some outputs to look at. It was suggested that if this fits with our current policies around Academic Freedom – a key principle of which is that ‘some standpoints may cause upset, but these must be presented in ways that are not hostile or degrading’ which may mean that our policies may need to be looked at to see if they are currently fit for purpose.
Since the Senate, there has been a commitment to look at how the OU oversees the establishment of academic networks and centres and whether there are lessons to be learned from recent events and from good practice across the sector.
Institutional Performance Report to Senate
The information on this paper is a regular update to Senate and reports on academic performance in terms of student progression including module retention, completion and pass. It also reports on student recruitment.
It was noted that the presentation of this data is quite complex as the colour codes are not the best way to assess the data accurately, particularly if you have any visual impairments. The info could be better presented as a one-page cover sheet with the changes listed, rather than a long report with minor updates sprinkled throughout. The work being done on the new Strategy will be looking at the way in which this information will come to Senate in the future.
We raised our concern that the rise in student numbers seen may not be matched by a rise in AL appointments. We were assured that the rise in spending announced in the Chairs report was indeed being used to target these issues.
Quality Assurance Agency Quality Enhancement Review: Outcome and Follow-up
The Quality Enhancement Report and action plan were expected, but the Action Plan has been delayed to the Autumn.
We asked that our thanks be given to Donna Wright for her modelling of good student partnership working during the process, as the two Student Leads on the QER were actively supported and involved throughout the review period.
A comment about the contents of the report where it commits to moving to online-only teaching was raised, and the Vice-Chancellor was quick to assure Senate that that was not intentional, no such strategic decision has been made, and that the Action Plan will make clear that a blended learning approach is the current stance of the Open University teaching strategy.
Senate Annual Effectiveness Review Reports
We raised our concerns that if the standard way of working with academic committees is to be much more weighted towards online, which it clearly is, that we need to actively consider the inequity of experience that students are currently grappling with. Digital poverty/inclusion needs to be considered and acted on. If the OU want us to be more engaged with their work online, then they need to ensure we have the same access to tech and software as everyone else, we need to ensure that printed papers, for those of us that need them, are relayed and delivered in a timely way to ensure that we can engage on an equal footing as those that do not need specific accommodations. The deadlines for papers need to be firm so that hard copies of papers can go out in a reasonable timeframe to allow us to read and digest them ready for meetings.
Sorry, this is one of my own personal soapboxes - I live in a rural area where the infrastructure is terrible and engaging online consistently is difficult.
Student Charter Reviews
We had a good discussion on how to get more OU involvement in promoting the Student Charter. And some good ideas came from this, we will be actively following these up.
Institutional Anti-Racism and Anti-Discrimination statements
Discussion was had about whether these go far enough; whether we can do more to strengthen the statements and be clearer on what protected characteristics are, and whether we might include xenophobia, recent statements about ‘foreigners,’ EU citizens, settled status and Brexit all highlight this need. The tone needed to be more formal and this will be taken away and improved based on the feedback.
Starred Papers (marked for discussion):
D1 REGULATIONS FOR VALIDATED AWARDS S-2021-03-08 (Starred)
A technical concern around content was raised, but we were assured the approval was for the model for integrated masters pathway rather than that particular module.
Honorary Degree Nominations
This was an interesting experience on how to deal with a situation where a paper unexpectedly becomes contentious. Debate was had and a commitment to look at better ways of managing issues raised will be taken back to the committee for further discussion
All of the usual substructure items were noted, with no further discussion. None were starred:
- Academic Quality and Governance Committee.
- Education Committee.
- Research Committee.
- The Council.