Belfast Metropolitan College has enjoyed considerable success in the field of student voice. The college was awarded first place in the UK’s ‘Learner Voice Practitioners Network Awards’, while their Student Union was a finalist in the National Union for Students’ ‘Student Union of the Year Award’.

Vocational Education Exchange caught up with Jim Woods, Head of Learner Success at Belfast Metropolitan:

How would you define ‘student voice’?

Student voice is about ensuring students are involved in every aspect of college life. Quite simply: ‘Nothing about them, without them.’ Student voice entails empowering learners by providing appropriate ways to listen to their concerns, interests and needs in order to ensure an excellent education experience for each and every student. It is also about building a sense of community between learners, academic and support staff, and senior management. 

How does Belfast Metropolitan College approach student voice? 

Belfast Metropolitan College has introduced a number of initiatives to ensure the voices of students are truly embedded within all aspects of college life:

  • We have a Student Council, which allows the student body to communicate with the Senior Leadership Team and the Board of Governors. Members of the Student Council also contribute to the college’s Quality Assurance Committees.
  • Our Class Representative system means every class must elect a student representative. These representatives regularly meet with the Director of Curriculum and the Head of Learner Success to provide feedback and engage with the ‘You said, we did’ exercise. This crucial exercise allows management to provide feedback to students, letting them know how the issues they have raised are now being addressed. 
  • The college’s Students’ Union has introduced platforms for student expression too, including training initiatives and the student-led Teaching Awards.
  • We also conduct bi-annual Student Satisfaction Surveys, allowing the college to comprehensively record and analyse learners’ feedback.
  • Belfast Metropolitan’s student magazine contains updates on student voice too.

What are the benefits for students who participate in such activities?

Learners see the value in adopting leadership roles, and participation in extracurricular activities will be a distinct advantage for students seeking to progress to higher education. In addition to developing leadership and management skills, we have also seen learners practice and display impressive presentation and public speaking abilities through participating in our student voice schemes. Finally, students have recognised that their feedback can shape their own courses as well as helping the college identify best practice across subjects, thereby benefitting future learners as well as those currently studying. 

What advice would you give to colleges in other countries who are starting to think about engaging students in this way?

On a practical level, setting up a body like a student council would be a good first step. At a higher level, key to establishing an effective approach to student voice is ensuring commitment from the college as a whole: from students, academic and support staff, and the senior leadership and management team. As a college, we have recognised the value of nurturing and channelling independent feedback from students, viewing learners as important stakeholders and ensuring they are equipped to make a meaningful contribution to the development of Belfast Metropolitan.

We also spoke with Louise Meek, the President of Belfast Metropolitan’s Student Union:

How does the Student Union work in Belfast Metropolitan?

Belfast Metropolitan’s Student Union holds meetings with students throughout the year, encouraging both positive and negative feedback which the union can report back to the college’s management team and academic staff. We also welcome queries from the student body outside our formal meetings. Our voice is powerful and, through activities like the Student Union, we exercise it as often as possible.

How do students and staff feel about giving their opinion?

We are becoming increasingly comfortable with sharing our views and students understand that our opinion is valued. The training students receive through the Student Union and the National Union of Students has been very helpful in this regard. As for the staff, I have found that the majority are very keen to listen to students’ voices.

What have you gained from your participation in Belfast Metropolitan’s Student Union?

In the future, I would like to work in a leadership role and the skills I have gained from the role of President of the Student Union will definitely help me. 

Has your institution recently introduced a student voice initiative? If so, Vocational Education Exchange would be very keen to hear about your experiences, any challenges faced, and the benefits for your organisation. Please feel free to share your thoughts and get in touch.