Guest post by Jeanette Ashton.
Jeanette Ashton is a Lecturer in Law (Education and Scholarship) and a Non-Practising solicitor, having joined the University of Sussex after 8 years at Brighton University. She is Employability lead for the Law School, leads the Client Interviewing skills programme and co-leads the CLOCK legal companion scheme.
This piece reflects on the experience of co-creating, with students, the 2021 LPS ‘Making a Difference’ Employability showcase. It is set within the pedagogical context of a growing interest in, and body of literature on, co-creation, knowledge exchange and students as ‘partners’ (Cook-Sather et al, 2014, Dollinger & Lodge, 2020, Little, 2012). Whilst aware of ‘co-creation’ often being used to tick boxes in HE spaces, as a team we genuinely felt we had co-created, and in doing so, had managed to ‘create’ something powerful and unique – and make a difference. Following the successful delivery of the showcase, I carried out a small study with the team, to explore themes including their motivation for participating, what they had learnt from the experience, any perceived employability and skills benefits, what co-creation means to them, and any learning points. This piece draws on those findings.
This piece explores how that genuine partnership came about, the benefits and takeaway message for future projects.
Origins of the project – the need for honest conversations and doing things differently and building the team
This project was born out of a vlog series by myself and two final year law students, with a local practitioner Jo O’Sullivan (osullivanfamilylaw.com), where we discussed themes including the impact of the pandemic on them and their studies; their thoughts on the impact of AI on future employment; how the legal profession can become truly diverse, and their thoughts on the law generally. The students nominated me for a Sussex Education ‘teaching to disrupt’ award, for which I was shortlisted, writing about how they had valued the opportunity to speak frankly about their experiences as young women of colour, at the university and in wider society (Frank conversations about the law – YouTube).
Whilst discussing meaningful diversity, the students said it was important to them that employability events had practitioners who “looked like” them i.e., who they could relate to, both in terms of ethnicity and background and how they wanted to hear from a range of perspectives in the employability context (#Closing the Gap, 2019). New in post at Sussex, having joined in September 2020, in a challenging year with strikes and then Covid, I started thinking about what I could do as Employability lead, to help students from all kinds of backgrounds explore the range of career opportunities available and hopefully inspire them at the end of a difficult year.
More traditional events such as our Law Fair and barrister/solicitor workshops were already in the calendar, so we wanted to do something different framed around the broad ideas of diversity and social justice. The three of us met to discuss what we could do, and from this the Employability showcase idea came. We wanted to create a series of events around the theme of ‘making a difference’ and to hear from a diverse range of panelists, rather than having a ‘diversity event’. Moving beyond the buzzword of ‘diversity’ is a challenge not only for universities, but for wider society, and we wanted to explore this through our showcase. The aim was to explore difficult questions and open up honest and frank conversations.
From the outset, it was important to me that this event be truly co-created, not me leading and delegating particular tasks, but with the students involved in all stages of planning and implementation. The LPS Careers Connector and Race Equity Advocate (“REA”) joined our team, with all sharing the vision of wanting to open up some frank conversations on a range of themes from guests in a variety of roles. From this our showcase panels emerged: Women & allies in law; Disruptors in Law & beyond; Activism, Change-making & Policy-Influencers & NGOs and Human Rights.
Motivations / drivers for the team
Interestingly, the motivation for the students, was broadly similar. One said they wanted to “make a little bit of a difference” and those in the paid Connector/REA roles were pleased to have a tangible task to work on alongside their exploratory work. With future career considerations being the second highest priority for students choosing a course in the 2021 UK Domestic Survey and a strategic priority for institutions including Sussex, it is perhaps surprising that when asked if they had thought about employability benefits/CV enhancement, the students all indicated this hadn’t been a motivation, although they appreciated the benefits subsequently. The common theme was doing something different, with one commenting that this project was “something different from our regular mundane law student life, where we just do the same things over and over again.”
So, what is co-creation?
I was interested to explore what co-creation meant to them. Themes of working together, creating something and lack of hierarchy came through strongly. They felt it was “working together to develop an idea”, being “all in the same boat, relying on each other to get this thing out for the benefit of everyone to enjoy”, “an equal power dynamic” from the vlog series to the showcase, the ability to share experiences “without any boundaries” and “creating linkages” [with faculty, peers and professionals].
Control, trust and responsibility
In a piece co-authored with students participating in a new ‘Law Critique and Question Group’, my Law School colleague Verona Di Drisceoil writes about the experiences and challenges of breaking down the hierarchies of the teacher/student relationship (DARE blog). Throughout my academic career I have considered myself as student-focused and enjoyed working with students on various projects. However, whilst I have given students responsibility for particular tasks, I have retained ownership and ultimately control, of the projects. Perhaps the biggest challenge of co-creation is the fear of losing control (Bovill et al., 2011), particularly in the context of high stakes projects relating to curriculum and assessment design. The showcase project was arguably less pressured, in that it was an extra-curricular event, but it felt high stakes in terms of the goals for the project, namely wanting to do something different, to open up conversations for our students, showcase diverse roles and routes and help students to feel optimistic about their future career paths, particularly important given the likely negative impact of the pandemic on graduate employability. Alongside this, we were hosting twenty guests, from a variety of sectors, and wanted them to feel that their time had been well spent with us.
I undoubtedly experienced a sense of discomfort at stepping back from having control of the process, but, a sense of what a talented group of students I was working with, alleviated that. The students reflected that they had relished not being micromanaged, that through our meetings they were clear as to what was required and the timeframes. As one said “when you’re given the trust, you can then reciprocate, because you know you have the responsibility.” One of the students created a Google doc, where we could check in, share resources and suggest contacts for each other and provide progress updates, another arranged panel moderator training for the group. Each of them had responsibility for one of the panels, with each, as one student noted, able to use their “unique skills” to put their stamp on the night. The value to students of being able to personalise the project has been highlighted elsewhere (Dollinger & Lodge, 2020). They reached out to their peers for support, with the Student Law Society designing the promotional material and sharing widely with the student body, and the Women in Law Society co-hosting the ‘Women and Allies in Law’ night.
Reflecting on the project, the students felt that they had developed and enhanced a number of key skills. One of these, relating to trust and responsibility, was the experience of developing professional relationships through their communications with the guests on their respective nights, with one stating “the reaching out and emailing and talking to people is really good practice and I don’t think students are given enough opportunities” [to develop professional communication skills]. They all felt that the project had helped develop or enhance their public speaking skills, including the ability to “flex” on the night to move along the conversations, to manage time and attendees’ questions, alongside professional skills including organisation and project management, which one noted “you don’t really get to develop as a student”. Again, responsibility was a theme “holding myself accountable to get things done”.
Important to all of them was teamwork, they spoke of supporting each other, including in the design of a template for the night, which they could then adapt. One, a finalist, commented “I didn’t know what teamwork was before this year really and it’s strange because we haven’t been able to see each other in person”. This sense of teamwork extended to the guests and attendees at the events. The showcase coincided with the week of protests relating to the murder of Sarah Everard (The Guardian, 2021) and the students felt this had perhaps added to what one termed a “community feel”, despite being an online event.
Concluding thoughts and future challenges
From my perspective, the showcase was a career highlight and the first truly co-created project I have worked on. Attendees who completed the post-event survey were overwhelmingly positive, commenting on the breadth of discussion, which included racism; sexual violence; ‘having it all’; the internship loop; following your passions; being authentic, and how to make a difference without burning out. They enjoyed the diversity of the guests and careers paths, with many noting it had helped them feel more optimistic about future options. One of the student attendees wrote a post for the Law School’s student blog Exploring Careers that ‘Make a Difference’: Highlights from the Spring 2021 LPS Employability Showcase – Sussex Legal Minds (law.blog) and several offered to support future events.
In terms of learning points, whilst the showcase was undoubtedly successful, with around 200 students attending across the week, it is clear that those who benefitted most from the project were the small team working on it. A challenge for future co-created projects is how to scale up so that more students have the opportunity to benefit (Dollinger & Lodge, 2020). Perhaps, in thinking about employability strategy, institutions should consider investing in more co-created projects, in terms of curriculum development, assessment design and extra-curricular/work ready opportunities, which provide students with lifetime benefits and a chance to make a difference to their communities. As well as being beneficial for the students and staff involved, which was the experience of this project, this could, as Nicholson suggests, benefit the institution more broadly, in enabling differentiation in the HE market (Nicholson, 2020).
I would like to conclude with the thoughts of one of our “Disruptors in Law and beyond” guests Michael Herford, Sussex alumnus and co-founder of Legal Lifelines:
“It was really insightful and inspiring hearing from the other panellists and I hope the conversation put fire in the bellies of the participants to pro-actively pursue their chosen path, or trailblaze a path, if necessary. It was abundantly clear from the quality of questions from the students that there is a new wave of brave, motivated and talented change makers set to join the frontline shortly – an exciting prospect indeed!”
My key takeaway from the project is that co-creation provides dual benefits for students and faculty, that this should be an institution priority, and that continuing to develop such projects is “an exciting prospect indeed!”
Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A., & Felten, P. (2011) ‘Students as co-creators of teaching approaches, course design and curricula: Implications for academic developers’, International Journal for Academic Development, 16, 133-145, doi:10.1080/1360144X.2011.568690.
bame-student-attainment-uk-universities-closing-the-gap.pdf (universitiesuk.ac.uk) (accessed 8 July 2021)
Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014) Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a guide for faculty, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Dollinger, M. & Lodge, J. (2020) ‘Understanding value in the student experience through student-staff partnerships’, Higher Education Research & Development, 39:5, 940-952, doi:10.1080/07294360.2019.1695751.
Staff-Student Partnerships in Higher Education (2012), ed. Little, S., Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Nicholson, A. (2020) ‘The value of a law degree – part 2: a perspective from UK providers’, The Law Teacher doi: 10.1080/03069400.2020.1781483
QS_UK_Domestic_Student_Survey_2021.pdf (accessed 7 July 2021).