Students’ Unions (SU) can ruffle the feathers of some college principals, for others they are their gateway to enhancing the student experience and driving up quality. I have been involved in the student movement for five years. Representing students as a class representative, as President of City College Norwich Students’ Union and now as a member of the NEC for the NUS. During which time I have visited numerous colleges and spoken to hundreds of class representatives.

It has never ceased to amaze me the variation of engagement between colleges and their students’ union. At some they are at the centre of an organisations work, and for others they don’t even have a students’ union! There was one college which I visited on a peer review, where I introduced the students’ union President to the Principal, the president had been in the role for 9 months.

The student voice is something that I passionately believe has to be at the centre of every college; if we are to have a sector that truly meets the needs and aspirations of students.  Staff at every level can engage with students and to benefit not only the students but the organisation. Happy students will lead to an outstanding organisation.

If all staff make the effort to engage with students, it quickly becomes an organisational habit to truly put the student first.”

Below are my top five tips for engaging with your students and/or your students’ union:

1) My first tip may sound rather obvious, but in some cases this will be at the top of the list. If you don’t have a student representation system such as a student council/parliament or students’ union. Then set one up. I’m not about to dish out legal advice, but it is against the law not to have such structures. It may seem like a challenging task to undertake but there are plenty of resources out there to help and advise you on what needs doing. The National Union of Students (NUS) would be more than happy to help you establish a representative structure.

2) All staff across an organisation will have an impact on the student experience; some roles are more obvious than others when it comes to impact. However big or small that impact they need to know what the experience of their output was like for the student. If all staff make the effort to engage with students, it quickly becomes an organisational habit to truly put the student first.  This is an organisational habit that needs to come from the top. If managers show that they are actively engaged with the student voice then others will begin to do the same.

3) Senior managers have to know who their President, Chair of Parliament and/or their student governors are. After you’ve read this, why not send an email and arrange a fixed regular meeting for every two or three weeks with your senior student representative. It’s a great method of not only getting to know what the students are saying about the college. But also an opportunity for you to explore your ideas and thoughts with a student straight off. Remember they are the users of the environment which you manage every day, their feedback is invaluable.

4) Students are much more than just your customers. Invite them along to your school/department management meetings and allow them a slot to provide some feedback on your area. As well this ensures they are part of your annual review meetings and day to day quality monitoring meetings. They are co-producers of education, not customers.

5) Educate your representatives! I remember when I first became SU President. It was a daunting experience, I had no idea what the difference between the LSC and an RDA was and could certainly not explain the operational structure of the college; there was so much to learn. Fortunately I had senior managers that spent time with me and explained in detail the nut and bolts of FE and the college. The NUS provides a comprehensive training programme for new and current officers which will help representatives to better understand FE. However having some knowledge that is specific to the organisation itself is essential. The quicker representatives know the college, the sooner they will be able to feedback effectively.

So they are my top five tips, I could list many more. But I believe there is enough here to begin to truly engage with the student voice. Don’t be afraid of it, students are always willing to pass on the good points as well; it is not just an opportunity to discuss what’s wrong. The students’ voice is also a method of understanding what is going right and using that feedback to share best practice. (I think I have just put in 6th!).

Shane Mann is the FE National Executive Council NUS member and tweeting as @shanermann