Student engagement is becoming an increasingly valuable criterion for awards and career opportunities in addition to academics. Student engagement also has many beneficial impacts on campus life, including increasing academic performance, building social skills and soft skills, establishing support networks, and helping improve mental health.

As we continue to return to in-person learning, we need to do all we can to bolster a healthy, vibrant, and inclusive culture of student engagement. While the current extracurricular activities at U of T contribute to this goal, the university can also do more to give student engagement a much-needed boost and help make U of T a global leader in this area.

A data-driven approach to student engagement

The university should measure its extracurricular participation rate at least once annually to assess what percentage of students are actively participating in extracurricular organizations and student governments. This would help in identifying systemic barriers to student engagement that may be preventing some students from getting involved on the campus. 

This could be achieved through student surveys, but a better way would be to expand the co-curricular record and Student Life online platforms to more proactively recognize students’ extracurricular memberships and contributions so more concise participation rates can be calculated.

Once barriers to participation are identified, it will be easier to develop strategies to promote student engagement and make getting involved as accessible as possible. The results of the data analysis should be shared publicly so student unions and student organizations can also adopt their strategies to address systemic engagement barriers.

A proactive but not imposing approach to student government

The university should more actively work to protect student autonomy by ensuring students have the resources and clarity they need to maintain a high quality of student democracy and navigate university policies that impact student unions. 

This should take the form of providing timely advice about these policies, so students do not waste their and the university’s time following incorrect procedures or contacting the wrong administrators. I believe this would also be useful for non-student education stakeholders who regularly work with student organizations, such as deans and department heads, to ensure that they do not infringe upon student democracy. Additionally, existing university policies should be expanded to mandate that timely guidance be provided to students about the correct procedures to expediently accomplish extracurricular goals.

Furthermore, processes that involve the university directly interacting with student unions and organizations, such as in complaint processes, should be more transparent while providing complainants with whistleblower protections as needed.

A nexus for collaboration between student organizations

I believe that the best results for student engagement come from an interconnected extracurricular network where various groups can easily support each other on joint initiatives when such opportunities arise. This network should be both horizontal across all facets of U of T student life and vertical to allow student access to extracurricular opportunities at provincial, national, and international levels.

For horizontal engagement, perhaps the online system where student organizations can share information about upcoming events with the university can be more streamlined and promoted more regularly to the general student population. The university can also suggest opportunities for potential collaboration between similar groups. 

These connections could perhaps be leveraged to the point where large-scale social events consisting of hundreds or even thousands of students could be organized at the beginning and end of each semester through partnerships between the university and multiple student organizations. Another potential benefit could be more interdisciplinary activities that may lead to innovative ideas.

For example, as in other universities, student unions and student organizations at U of T should play an active role in encouraging students to attend games of U of T sports teams. These large-scale events have great potential to boost student engagement, which can in turn lead to more participation in other aspects of student life, including student union elections and activism campaigns. 

A study I am working on with some other students on Canadian undergraduate student union voter turnout has demonstrated that some of the highest turnouts in student union elections are in schools with vibrant extracurricular participation.

The university should also assist student organizations in accessing extracurricular and activism opportunities beyond the campus to scale up their activities. For instance, many can hypothetically obtain consultative status with multiple facets of the United Nations and have a direct voice in education and related policy resolutions that go to world leaders, which can also lead to partnerships and sponsorships with other organizations in these spaces. 

There are also organizations and networks U of T student organizations can join themselves that span far beyond campus. The more networks these student organizations at U of T gain access to, the more influence the U of T community will have on the future of education. U of T should integrate information into its existing resources and orientation sessions for student organizations about the various provincial, national, and international networks that exist which may be relevant. Resources and tips for upscaling extracurricular operations to the next level and building organizational capacities would also be beneficial.

I believe that there is a connection between the quality of extracurricular activities, student success, and effective student activism, and that the best results can be achieved when the university and student organizations work together to make the student experience the best it can be.

Justin Patrick is a third-year PhD student in educational leadership and policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He currently serves as the President of the Global Student Government and the President of the Leadership, Higher and Adult Education Departmental Student Association.