Managing Staff-Student Liaison Well

     
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Staff-student liaison committees (SSLCs) are an important part of life in the modern UK university, reflecting the institution’s awareness of the importance of the student perspective in shaping university life. Since they provide students with the means to communicate with staff directly, they are a very valuable part of the wellbeing of the academic community and institution.

SSLCs are usually chaired by a student representative, and consist of at least one invited member of staff, and student representatives from each level.

I’m the Staff Rep – now what? 

If you have been allocated the role of staff representative, make sure you familiarize yourself with your university’s guidelines on the role, and if possible, talk to the previous staff rep about his or her experiences in the role. Generally speaking, your role is likely to be one in which you represent the staff body. You will be expected to enter into general discussions with the students, and to act as a reliable conduit of information between staff and students. While you should not take any policy decisions yourself about issues raised, you may offer students guidance by letting them know the outcome of similar issues raised in the past (remember that the lifecycle of the student is usually only 3 years, while your own and your colleagues’ memory of past decisions is usually longer than that!).

An example of this might be if students raise the question of the division of the academic year, and when semesters and vacations fall – they may find it useful to know that this was raised at an institutional level only 4 years previously, and what the outcome of that discussion was – before they spend too much time on it.

You and the Chair

The Chair of the committee will usually be a student in his or her final year, and as such, will be expected to have a good overview of the teaching issues of the department and school. He or she should be able to guide the committee professionally, enforcing guidelines about confidentiality, personalized discussions, and so forth.

If, however, you find that the Chair is not as skilled in these areas as you might like, you may wish to provide some subtle guidance. For instance, you might prompt the Chair for an agenda before the meeting, and at its start, might make a general comment to the effect that you have an appointment an hour later, so as to avoid over-run. If other more serious breaches of confidentiality arise (if, for instance, discussion takes place about a particular individual rather than a teaching matter), you are perfectly within your rights to offer a gentle reminder that individuals should not be discussed.

But in all cases, defer to the Chair, prompting him or her if necessary to take Chair’s action. Remember that this is a committee run by students, for students, and that your role is to enable, rather than lead.

Understand the student perspective

It may also be helpful to remind yourself that the issues raised by students are pressing and significant to them, and deserve a respectful hearing from you and your colleagues. Remember how strongly you felt about issues that concerned you while you were a student, and treat the issues raised at the SSLC accordingly.

In addition to being heard at the meeting, students also benefit from having a sense that their issues are reaching the staff body. Make sure you provide a succinct report of your School’s (Department’s) response to issues raised at the previous SSLC, and be willing to take appropriate matters back to your School or Department. (It may not always be the case that you need to do this, of course: some small matters raised can be dealt with on the spot, if you are sure of your ground.)

In sum, the SSLC is a useful body in which classroom issues that might otherwise go unnoticed can be brought to the attention of staff; it can also help shape improvements in teaching and programme design. This all goes towards the creation of an environment in which the staff-student interaction is positive and healthy, and where each side appreciates the perspective of the other.

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