Let me tell you a story. It’s a fairly innocuous story, but at the time it struck me. It requires some patience, and a little bit of background about the University of Nottingham.
Nottingham is a multi-campus university: we have several campuses across Nottingham, some presence in China and Malaysia, and some healthcare presence in Derby. We also have a campus in Sutton Bonington; Sutton Bonington is a campus like none of our others. Containing Britain’s newest Vet school, as well as the remnants of the Midlands College of Agriculture (now the School of Biosciences) the campus has a long heritage, and a culture of its own. The School of Biosciences in itself is a mysterious beast, consisting of Animal and Plant scientists (who aren’t biologists – that’s a different school), some NHS funded Dietetic students, some Nutrition students, and some Food Technology students. There is a working brewery, and some of the students use a textbook called ‘The Technology of Cake’ (that isn’t a joke: that textbook exists). The campus itself is based closer to Loughborough than Nottingham, on a country lane just outside Sutton Bonington village. Kegworth is the closest ‘town’: please note that I used ‘town’ in inverted commas – Kegworth has about three pubs and not much else. I would hesitantly suggest that Kegworth has one of the densest populations of students in the country. I have links to this town: a member of my family had a farm there and I regularly visited as a child. There is a family story of me getting a minor head injury in that house (which I suppose might explain some things). I guess what I mean to say is when you think of Nottingham, you don’t think of Sutton Bonington. As it turns out, neither do some of our students.
I am currently in the midst of data-collection for a project with the School of Biosciences at Sutton Bonington – I am doing a series of face to face interviews about lecture attendance – and have been spending my last few weeks there, often late into the night. Whilst it isn’t an ethnographic portrait I do seem to have been living the life of a Sutton Bonington campus student – I have been to their farmer’s market (the cakes are superb), drank coffee at the coffee shop (not as superb), used their teaching rooms for interviews (warm), worked on my laptop in their library (cold) and travelled on their Hopper Bus. The Hopper Bus is a law onto itself – when it works smoothly it gets you to University Park in 20 minutes; when it works badly you can be waiting for an hour just for it to arrive. The story I want to tell you is about that Hopper Bus.
It was a Wednesday afternoon, the day when Nottingham’s intra-mural sports league occurs. On a Wednesday the hopper bus queue is longer than usual (although it is often long) as the more sports-minded students travel between campuses to play each other at football and other sports. On this particular day the queue was long, and comprised mainly of University Park students who were still dressed in shorts. It was the coldest day of the year so far and I was wearing the Sutton Bonington uniform – it basically consists of a beaten up Barbour jacket. I have been to Sutton Bonington many times (as have many others in the Union), and it is quire easy to spot someone not from there, as they don’t wear the uniform, or don’t quite seem to know where they’re going. At this point, I was watching a group of 1st years who had been representing a hall at University Park; the group were complaining – they had been waiting for 40 minutes, as sometimes happens. Whilst I listened to their hurble-burble, I heard one of them say something that sprung out to me:
“Mate this place is rubbish. It’s not the University of Nottingham. What the hell is this place?”
At the time I was incensed: I very nearly addressed them. I felt that these students, the ‘Main Campus’ students were devaluing the campus, a campus I have developed a certain fondness for.
Having thought about it in great detail, to some extent the student was right. Sutton Bonington campus is part of the University of Nottingham, but students have a totally different experience from those who live in Nottingham itself. Their expectations (sometimes lowered) are completely different from those at University Park; the students who study at Sutton Bonington are well aware of that difference, and many apply simply because they fall for the campus. While students who live in Nottingham primarily live in traditional HMOs, at Sutton Bonington they live in family houses with well-tended gardens. Many students at Sutton Bonington keep pets, including horses (there are a lot of vets after all); many grow plants in the Poly tunnels. Over the course of my interviewing I have made the point of enquiring how often the students who study there travel into Nottingham: many simply aren’t; they prefer to socialize in the village pubs and to shop in Loughborough. Some go to Nottingham on nights out, but have no contact hours outside of Sutton Bonington; the halls at Sutton Bonington are next to the teaching buildings, meaning that you can be out of bed and into lectures in less than five minutes. If you ever travel on the Hopper Bus on a Thursday evening, then it basically becomes a rather surreal party bus, complete with its own Hopper Bus BNOCs. They are separate but equal to those at University Park.
What I’m finding, regardless of the conclusions of my study, is that when the university talks of the student experience’ it can’t be seen as a universal experience. The student experience at Nottingham contains microcosms; it is a multiverse. A University Park student relates to their experience and the university in general in a completely different way than a Sutton Bonington student. Their lifestyle and choices are different, and are sometimes dictated by environment as much as the student’s decision making process. Whilst a University Park student may worry about certain things, the students at Sutton Bonington worry about the level of lighting on Station Road (which the Union has been campaigning on): these issues are mutually exclusive of one another. A University Park student who never visits Sutton Bonington will never have cause to worry about the lighting on Station Road, as they will never walk down it. As I am so embedded at Sutton Bonington at the moment, I am increasingly finding that as a Union we can’t mandate a consistent university experience as there are so many variables at play; we have to think beyond stereotypes, and even beyond the idea of ‘hard to reach’ – Sutton Bonington students engage in different ways and many have actively chosen to experience a totally different university life. As a Union we can fight for minimum standards, and for a broadly consistent offering to be maintained, but we have to be accepting of the differences that make small campuses like Sutton Bonington unique. The same is true of Derby, or the other locations where there are students studying for a Nottingham degree, but where the Union isn’t primarily based.
I am a Social Researcher at heart – I have done it professionally for a number of years, at a number of institutions and across sectors. I am also uniquely privileged: the Students’ Union at Nottingham has far more resource dedicated to insight than many others, and works on many projects at once. Whilst my time is consistently filled, I am able to single-mindedly focus on the academic experience at Nottingham; I am not being pulled in a number of different ways at once. We are, as a Union, engaged with more research than many others across a number of fields simultaneously: the academic, welfare, political research and marketing. I have worked as a sole researcher at other Unions before, but at Nottingham I am allowed depth – I can drive change by digging deeper. I have only learned about Sutton Bonington by being there, by immersing myself within it, and by falling in love with it a little bit. I feel that this experience has surprised even me; when I moved to Nottingham I didn’t know the area at all, and wouldn’t have known to engage the schools based there on a specific level.
This is my main point – as a movement we are getting better at research, but to drive it forwards, and with better results, requires resource. It isn’t enough to simply survey once a year, or to survey in general. With resource we can take novel approaches and learn new things; we can start to explore the nuance of university life that a survey doesn’t give us. We can start to dig under the surface to get away from learning WHAT students think to learning WHY students might think that. We can dig into their experience more: when we automatically reach for Survey Monkey we lose that depth of understanding: we start to frame the student experience around our own understanding of it instead of looking exploring it as it exists for those who are actively experiencing it. We basically end up, as a movement, suffering from confirmation bias. We also shouldn’t only resource research when we need something from our students: by engaging in projects that touch a number of areas simultaneously, the research process isn’t one-sided: we aren’t simply researching to develop our own function, but are researching to truly enhance the student experience.
Over the years I have had countless conversations with university staff who ask me: ‘what do students think about this?’ As a researcher I am a mediating voice in their discussion with students, and can interpret what students tell me, but unfortunately my only answer can truly be ‘don’t ask me, ask students!’. The only way of finding out why students think a certain way about something is to ask them about it. We need to start looking beyond the safe confines of quantitative research (as we seem to believe that stats without question bring legitimacy), and to move into the messy world of qualitative research. With that move to differing methodology, what the Union movement needs is experience and resource in research: we need people who can challenge methodology, and start to create insight on a wide range of things, using different approaches that bring results. We need research practitioners as much as we need advice practitioners, people with different skill-sets that can enhance our function as Unions. We shouldn’t think of research as a by-product of the consultation process, but as something that brings results and creates change in its own right. Instead of framing research as something like ‘let’s confirm what we think is true about X subject’, but instead seeking to frame research questions that dig deeper, I believe that we get better as Unions who are engaging their members about issues that the members need us to engage around. When academics critique our methods, instead of thinking ‘well of course they’d say that, they are an academic and we are telling them things they don’t want to hear’, we have to accept that sometimes they are right: our method has been slap-dash, or self-confirming, or whatever they have accused us of. We need to accept their critique, and develop ourselves. By asking students what they think in different ways than we often actually do, we often learn surprising things, just as I have in all my time at Sutton Bonington.
If you ask a Sutton Bonington student if they are a University of Nottingham student, then they will doubtless say they are – but they are also Sutton Bonington students, and will define themselves in that way. That’s a good thing. I want to protect that culture, to understand it, and to learn how the Union can adapt its offering for the environment, and learn the ways that those students can be part of the best education that they can have. I don’t mean this to sound as if to say ‘employ more researchers’ (although I do think that is a great plan and can tell you why we’re great), but what I mean to say is use the resources you have available to you in the best possible way – sometimes that can be by engaging more staff, or by doing a survey that presents new and exciting findings, or by partnering with academic staff. Sometimes it is also about giving researchers (or research students, in many cases) the freedom to explore subjects with depth, and with different methodologies, or by giving them the time to dig deeper – it might be that with this freedom, the research community within the Union movement can drive real change.
Details of past projects that the University of Nottingham Students’ Union have engaged in can be found at: http://www.su.nottingham.ac.uk/research-library/archive/