Our Sector: Should (could) Students’ Unions’ run Academic Modules?

Coventry University Students’ Union (CUSU) have been running academic / credit bearing modules in the university for over ten years now. In this piece Paul Burt, Director of Membership Services (and Module Leader) discusses the approach.

CUSU’s credit bearing modules emerged out of the ‘rush to employability’ of universities in the early 2000s’ where universities and NUS were running skills sessions to harness and develop the employability of students. CUSU followed suit by running sessions in team work, leadership and other skills. They’ve now become a major part of pour work and they have become a significant income stream for us!

Coventry University went one step further in 2006 with the creation of the Add+vantage Scheme. The scheme developed a suite of over 200 + 10 credit modules (lasting for 10 weeks) that were employability focussed and were to be taken by all students at all undergraduate levels except for those  on professional practice courses such as Nursing students. Students could take any module that was on offer be it in their faculty or not. Professional Services, including CUSU, were encouraged to run them as well so we grasped the mettle and initially laid on three different types of modules:

  • Volunteering in Schools
  • Volunteering in the Community
  • Sports and Societies Officials Training

Initially our modules were run through the Business Faculty, using their Boards of Study to act as quality control and ratify results. Starting with 70 students, the modules that CUSU offer have grown to an expected 750 students in 17/18. From each course a student takes, CUSU receives over a healthy three figure sum for each student for delivery (after deductions for administration). The income provides for the staff we employ to deliver the modules and to continually develop our services.

The scheme started with myself and a colleague delivering modules and completing assessment (I have an academic background) but has extended to a team of four academics and admin support. One of the most significant developments we have had with the scheme has been this year when a senior member of the university suggest we run a ‘BSL Sign Language’ course. Being brave we ‘advertised the course’ before we had recruited a Tutor and the course ‘sold out’ in 50 seconds… the fastest ‘selling’ course in the university. We  have now managed to put on 8 more instances (the maximum we can put on). The gamble has paid off and we have recruited a member of staff who will deliver the classes starting in October. Classes will be immersive and we are very excited to see how they will evolve!

As the biggest provider of modules outside of a faculty, CUSU have contributed to the formation of what has become effectively a new Faculty with other professional services. Every new module CUSU develops has to receive comments form an external ‘expert’ who will review content and the learning outcomes. Any changes to current modules have to be done with the consultation of an ‘External Examiner’.

For some areas of CUSU the workload eases off in May / June but this is the time when the employability team will be extremely busy assessing work and preparing for Exam Boards. To ensure quality once a piece of work is moderated by another member of the team and then a sample of this work is moderated by the External Examiner. The External Examiner produces an annual report on the quality of our Modules and comments on areas of improvement. I am proud to say that CUSU have a positive record of feedback from the External Examiner. We strive for very high standards and achieve them. Student satisfaction has also been consistently above target!

When we started to run the modules, there was some disquiet that, as a Union, we were taking a dual role of both teaching students and representing them at the same time. Indeed I manage the Advice Centre, who may represent a student who has an issue with our course and also manage the Employability Team. This apparent conflict is overcome by an acknowledgement that the Advice Centre can act even independently of the department and any issues would be reported to the CEO of CUSU. Remembering that students cannot question academic judgement (we do get students who don’t like their mark: in those cases we refer them to the External Examiner where appropriate), we have had a handful of students consult with the Advice Centre about our courses centring on plagiarism issues.

Over the years we have grown student numbers and grown the courses on offer in line with CUSU activity. We now run placements in the Union as modules as well as Student Rep skills modules. Students can contribute to the development of the Union through their work and CUSU also benefit from the income. The Employability Team enjoy an excellent reputation in the University for delivery and quality, and the aim is to continue to grow the number of students we recruit which we would envisage being over a thousand in a couple of years.  These continue to be exciting times for us!


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