Student Q&A with LSE leadership

Director Minouche Shafik opened the Michaelmas Term Student Q&A session by welcoming students to the Shaw Library on Monday 28 November for an opportunity to come together with School leaders to share, listen to, and exchange questions.  

After introducing the panel - including Eric Neumayer, Pro-Director (Planning and Resources); Emma McCoy, Pro-Director (Education); Andrew Young, Chief Operating Officer; and Mark Allinson, Director of Student Experience – Minouche welcomed Emma and Mark to say a few words and reflect on their recent experiences since joining LSE. 

Jump to questions about: 

Introducing Emma McCoy 

Emma reflected on how pleased she is to join the panel today and take part in the first of these events. Emma joined LSE from Imperial College at the start of term and remarked on how much she is enjoying the incredibly diverse community, the challenges of shifting from mathematics to social sciences and the wealth of opportunity she’s seen for LSE students so far.  

There was also discussion of the value of working in partnership with students to co-create and shape the student experience here at LSE and the importance of this in delivering part of our strategy for LSE 2030 – to Educate for Global Impact. 

Before passing on to Mark Allinson, she shared a quote from Marie Skłodowska-Curie which has resonated throughout her time in the higher education sector: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” 

Introducing Mark E. Allinson 

Mark E. Allinson joined LSE in June of this year as our first ever Director of Student Experience and shared some of his initial thoughts on how he hopes to shape the journey of everyone who becomes a part of our LSE community. Like Emma, Mark emphasised the value of co-creating and shaping  LSE , and the value of a diverse and inclusive experience, which fosters a sense of belonging to something greater, and being valued for your contributions.  

He went on to highlight his priorities for this year, including revisiting our Student Charter, shaping stronger student communities and making the most of our student spaces.  

Question and answer session  

During the Q&A two main topics – industrial strike action and inclusion at LSE – were covered. The panel began by highlighting some of the pre-submitted questions before inviting questions from the in-person audience.  

Below each topic there is a summary of the panel’s response. 

Industrial action 

When asked what LSE is doing to bring this to a close especially around pensions, pay and contracts, the panel shared that the national nature of the strike action means that as an individual institution, we are unable to bring these matters to a close independently, relying on agreement between the Universities and College Union (UCU) and 150 member institutions. One of the challenges is the broad range of financial situations across these members and finding agreement which meets the needs of the union and is viable for everyone – payment is moderated by what the majority can pay. Within the aspects we do have control over, we are doing our best to influence these discussions and would like to move away from this limited consideration of pay alone, to allow other aspects of compensation and benefits to be considered in these negotiations.  

Additionally, in the past we have worked to influence pension discussions, using LSE expertise to help advise and inform ways to provide a sustainable pension offering to our staff.  

Regarding contracts at our School, the majority of fixed-term contract positions at LSE are developmental roles that are used to support PhD students and early career academics to gain teaching and / or research experience that will support them in pursuing a career in academia. They are fixed-term in nature to allow different cohorts of aspiring academics the opportunity to gain such experience. For some roles, LSE uses hourly paid contracts (rather than zero hours contracts) – all staff employed on these contracts are guaranteed a minimum number of hours. LSE is a London Living Wage employer, and also introduced an education career track for academics several years ago to reduce the number of fixed-term teaching positions.  

Compensation and fee refund requests 

In relation to students, the primary concern of the panel is to ensure we are mitigating any impact that strikes may have on students’ experience, and that you are able to achieve all of your learning outcomes for your degree, during your time with us.  
As an evolving situation, we currently cannot fully assess the impact of industrial action on teaching and learning, or accurately evaluate if support and mitigations put in place sufficiently remedy the effect of strike activity. This is because measures will vary depending on your area of study and may be enacted now, later in the term and across the duration of your programme.   

As a result, compensation requests can’t be considered whilst strike action continues and the full impact cannot be assessed. Details on this can be found on the Your studies during industrial action webpage.

The panel reconfirmed their commitment to working with LSE's local UCU branch and engaging with national representative bodies on sector-wide negotiations, adding that students will be kept informed of any further developments. The panel also recognised the importance of the unions as part of our School and share UCU's strong ethos of improving staff and student experiences at LSE, both now in response to current wider circumstances and longer-term. In the meantime, work is being done to minimise disruption to School activities and the student experience as much as possible.   

Strengthening the diversity of LSE’s community and the support available 

There was a lot of discussion around diversity, equity and what LSE is doing to close attainment gaps, widen representation and ensure access for those without means to take advantage of an LSE education.  

The panel shared that – while our LSE community is more internationally diverse than many other UK higher education institutions – there is a lot for us to do and continue to build on, with the hope that one day our community could be a true global representation of backgrounds and ethnicities represented pro-rata around the world.  

At present, we have our access and participation programme, our inclusive education action plan work and our overarching race equity framework, each of which explore a different aspect of addressing and advancing equity at our School. However, we must continue to hold ourselves accountable for continuing to make progress in these areas.  

One student highlighted the assessment gap between white and black students achieving results at LSE. The panel acknowledged that there has been a strong emphasis on providing access to an LSE education, and the need to shift some of that focus towards attainment for those already here. Emma agreed that there is important work not only exploring race, but also in consideration of wider intersectionality and how this could impact groups, and her desire to learn more from our student community, including ideas to understand how we can help shift this – both as an institution and in support of our students’ learning experiences.  

The discussion also included points on the inadequacies of terminology in representing diversity and ethnic backgrounds, highlighting the term BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) which is used widely in the UK as a standard, but leaves little space for breakdown of full understanding of what is  a broad group of backgrounds. The panel acknowledged the shortfalls of this and indicated that there are ongoing conversations amongst both staff and student communities to explore alternatives, while still maintaining data standards used within the UK for reporting.  

One student highlighted that they wanted LSE to have more visibility throughout Africa, and the panel shared the work of our Africa Institute which develops research and engagement throughout the continent, the Programme for African Leadership, which was established at LSE to empower a new generation of African leaders to promote best practices of economic and social development and work around funding for 100 scholarships for African students. 

Throughout, scholarships were also a recurring theme – highlighting ways to expand LSE’s reach into under-represented communities and provide support to more socio-economic backgrounds. The consensus across the panel was that their utopia was a world where access to an LSE education would be available to anyone offered a space, and while we’re not there yet, we’ll continue to work hard to seek funding for the scholarships that make this possible for so many. 

Additional questions outside of these two themes included the following: 

Critical challenges and academic freedom 

One student asked how LSE is ensuring staff and students feel able to speak up, without concerns for impacting research funding, especially with something like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where Director Minouche Shafik sits on the board. Minouche responded by clarifying that in her role on the board of the foundation, there is no cross representation of the work of LSE and the foundation, and there are clear boundaries on this.  

She added that our School is a place where staff, students and visitors are strongly encouraged to discuss, challenge and effect change through education practices, academic research and rigorous debate. This must always be the case and is something we are deeply committed to facilitating, and protecting, at all levels. 

Student wellbeing impacted by LSE systems  

There was also a question which brought up student wellbeing and the impact of stress caused by trying to navigate various platforms and systems at the start of the year. The panel agreed that yes – we have too many platforms. We are improving pre-arrival and what can be done before you get here, including giving students more information pre-arrival which makes registration faster and easier. 

This is an area of focus and investment for our School and while we have already made some improvements, we have a good deal of work to undertake as part of our Technology Strategy which will take some time to implement. 

Quality of experiences around teaching 

There were two questions relating to teaching. One student remarked that there is a notable difference in quality of lessons delivered by professors and graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) in their experience and ask whether anything is being done about this. Emma responded, outlining the training that is undertaken and plans to develop this further for our GTAs. She also highlighted that on this career path, this early teaching engagement is essential for developing into the outstanding academics that make up our community. She also noted that she was once a GTA and found it an intimidating but essential learning experience. That said, it should not negatively impact your learning experience, so we need to ensure that students feel able to share this feedback so that we can help develop skills and strengthen this community.  

The second question highlighted how challenging it can be to make the most of large lectures, where if feels like there is little interaction between the lecturer and the students. The panel agreed that it can be challenging to deliver interactive lectures in this format and that LSE is exploring how we can make use of a full variety of learning delivery methods to make the most of the skills of the professors and the needs of a wide variety of learning styles.  

As the Q&A drew to a close2, the panel thanked all those who attended and submitted questions.