How to use your voice to inspire change

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We had the opportunity to interview Isabella Enoizi from the University of Exeter. She shared her journey to becoming an advocate for students’ rights. We discussed the consequences COVID-19 had on university students and the hopes for a better future.

Introducing our Interviewee

Isabella Enoizi was recently elected as Vice President of Education. She is also a co-founder of the initiative Students for Academic Mitigation. In November, she started a petition in support of students that reached 24,000 signatures. It gained media attention that exposed the challenges brought by the pandemic.

Tell us about Students for Academic Mitigation. How did this idea come about?

Isabella: Back in November, we had returned to university. There was a No Detriment Policy in place, which protected our grades. There was a lot of uncertainty and we had no communication from our university. When I did some research, I realized that most universities haven’t even mentioned a policy that would protect people’s grades.

I decided to write a letter to my university. I thought if I get 100 signatures, I will send it to the university. Within 24 hours, I had 2000 signatures. Our Students’ union – The Guild, got in contact with me and invited me to a meeting. There I met Jake, who had started a Facebook page called Students for Academic Mitigation. He asked if I would be interested in coming on board and proposed we could use my letter because people seemed to resonate with it. So I agreed.

A month later, we decided to make it a national petition. In January, Boris Johnson made his announcement. University students were completely omitted from any sort of official government advice. Within a week I had 10,000 signatures and it went to 24,000 signatures. 

Students for Academic Mitigation decided to organize an online protest – ‘Save Our Grades’. That got a lot of press attention. Jake and I had interviews with the Tab and the BBC. Finally, students were getting some recognition and were being discussed by the media. There was a lot of misconception from the general public. The media attention brought people onto our side.

What challenges did you face?

Isabella: At first, we struggled to get our university to see that we were representing the majority and we weren’t an angry minority. Our Students’ Union helped us get in the door. They offered us support and set up meetings with high-level staff. They allowed Jake and I to take center stage and speak to the university from a students’ perspective. Their leadership is what inspired me to take over from them. We couldn’t have done it without them.

What kept you motivated?

Isabella: Back in January, I received 10-15 messages every single day from students that I’ve never met. Some were from students at other universities in England, Scotland, and Wales. We even had some Zoom calls to explain how we started the initiative so that they could start at their universities. We helped students at other universities write letters to their universities. We spoke at an NUS conference and at another Students’ Union about student activism.

For a lot of students, it’s not only grades, it’s their whole future. We wanted to do everything we could to make sure that they got the support that they deserved.

How did you overcome this challenge of speaking with the University leadership team?

Isabella: Our Vice President for education and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor explained to us the way that things worked. In that way, we could go into these meetings and sound like we understood what we were talking about.

The university management deserves credit where credit’s due. They made presentations and explained to us the systems behind the No Detriment Policy. Also, they took the time to organize meetings when the last meeting didn’t resolve all the problems. That clear communication and talking to us as if we deserve to be in the room is crucial.  We are able to come up with another solution but together. Let’s bounce ideas off of each other. 

Transparency and explanation need to be more distributed. That’s something that I put in my manifesto when I was running for the Students’ Union. The intricate details behind the scenes should be available to students. Management structure needs to be clearer so that students understand what’s going on behind the scenes.

Students in the end are customers and they are buying a product and the service.

Isabella: That’s one thing that can be seen as a good and as a bad thing. This pandemic has shown me how universities function as businesses. As a student, you have a certain level of power. You hold a certain stake in the decisions that are made. When you realize that you’re a stakeholder, you’re more motivated. Academic protection, support, and insurance for our future grades are part of the service we expect. When we sign our contract to pay our fees, we enter into a contract where the university has a duty of care for us.

Did you find anything positive in this whole experience?​

Isabella: The pandemic has forced the academic world into the 21st century. It has necessitated a level of change that would have been very slow to come. It has levelled the playing field with students who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds and enabled a level of access that we have never seen before. It has tested the community but with that has come massive innovation.

On a personal level, I’ve seen a side to myself that I didn’t know existed. I’ve become an advocate for students and found a passion in this new sector of society.

What is the importance of communication with students?​

Isabella: We need real-time communication. That means being kept in the loop and getting information as it arises. During the pandemic, it was particularly stressful for students. We felt that there’s a lot at stake for us. Our university has been slow off the mark at times to tell us the government updates and what it means for us.

Also, there’s a lot of financial consideration whether that be tuition fees or rent. A lot of these updates had big impacts on whether students felt that they were getting value for money. Because of the world that we’ve grown up in, we like to be part of the conversation. Universities want to use the language of business. Then students as customers deserve to have some input into the service that is provided to them.

There have been less than ideal conditions for everyone and a lack of access to facilities. There are also students who need specific adjustments made for them. Universities struggled with coming up with blanket measures. But they forgot that the student population is diverse in their needs. 

How can universities encourage student engagement?​

Isabella: When you log on to a university website as a member of that community, there needs to be clear signposting of where information can be found. Academic policies are buried in the University website, in the handbooks, and in the small print. That shouldn’t be the case. Those policies are there to protect the students and to be used. The academic staff needs to be familiar with those policies so that they can help. If the staff doesn’t know how to use them, how are students ever going to?

I’m going to work towards showing students how much of an effect their engagement can have. We’re not at school anymore. You have that business and customer relationship. There is much more scope for constructive dialogue. Students deserve input into the service that they are being provided. This pandemic has modernized universities much faster than it would have ever happened. We can’t let that slip.

I will encourage students to stay engaged by opening up possibilities for communication and feedback. Giving credit to the students is important. Otherwise, they will never know how much impact they can have.

What is the impact of technology in education?​

Isabella: Technology has made opportunities much more accessible in so many ways. It has also shone a light on the differences in circumstances and the disadvantages that some students face. That’s an important thing that we need to focus on improving. We need to make sure that disadvantaged students are not continually disadvantaged.

It has also shown that there’s still an inherent value in face-to-face education. There are still many students who need that interaction with their academic staff. As we return, we need to take the best of online and face-to-face education.

We’ve seen huge advancements in the way that we’re taught and the way that we’re learning. The academic staff deserves an immense amount of credit. It has involved as much learning for them as it has for us. We’ve all had to adapt.

One of the things that many students have voiced is their desire for lectures to remain recorded. In this way, they’re accessible for students who are in other time zones, or who have children at home and need to watch the lecture later. It also allows neurodivergent students who struggle to be in a loud auditorium to watch lessons in their own time. Also, it’s super useful for revision. 

What advice would you give to universities on supporting students after the pandemic?

IsabellaThis needs to be a collaborative effort with the students. They need to take a point from students and staff who have lived this experience. They will know what they do and don’t want to continue. There needs to be focus groups or group discussions. There are Town Hall events at Exeter, where anyone can turn up and submit their views.

Another important thing is to keep that communication open. Universities need to continue to adapt and have an open mind. We need to have an open mind on how to modernize universities and optimize the experience for students and staff.

There is so much opportunity for change. We’ve been forced to think of new ways of doing things. Why would we go back to a system that we’ve shown can be improved?

Key takeaways from this interview:

  • Students need real-time communication and to be kept in the loop.

  • Universities and students have a business-customer relationship. There needs to be input into the service they receive.

  • The student population is diverse and has different needs.

  • Universities should strive towards transparency and explanation.

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