Engaging Students in Human Rights – An Example from Queen’s Management School

This month PRiMEtime is looking at student engagement featuring innovative examples from schools globally. This week we look at an innovative partnership coming from the UK. Queen’s Management School saw an opportunity to collaborate with the Northern Ireland Business and Human Rights Forum to develop an innovative programme that engages students in human rights issues and how to raise the profile of human rights in business, both while still on campus as students, and throughout their careers.  I spoke with Laura Steele about this initiative.

What is the Programme and how did it come about?

The Northern Ireland Business and Human Rights Student Ambassador Programme was launched in September 2019. The initiative came about as the result of wanting to deepen our relationship with the Northern Ireland Business and Human Rights Forum. The Forum is a multi-stakeholder platform which allows government, business, and civil society to engage on business and human rights, and we have been a member since 2017. The Forum, in turn, wanted to connect with students. In addition, we were very keen to bring together individuals from a variety of different disciplines.

It is important to recognise that management education frequently takes place outside the confines of a business school, and that many future leaders will receive no formal management training. Equally, the Programme has exposed management students to ethics and human rights issues arising within fields such as computing, engineering, and law, to name just a few.

How does it work?

The Student Ambassador Programme is based on a ‘3-2-1’ model, as illustrated below. Participants must engage in three interactive workshops, attend two external events, and organise one student-led activity in order to successfully complete the Programme. Students are provided with a workbook at the first session which they use to record their learning. The Programme is aligned to Queen’s University’s DegreePlus initiative, which recognises and accredits Queen’s students for the personal drive and initiative they demonstrate in developing skills and experiences outside of their academic studies. Successful completion of the Programme enables students to receive a certificate at their graduation ceremony, which acts as an additional incentive!

What kind of training do they receive during the workshops?

The workshops cover three specific themes. The first is an introduction to Business and Human Rights that provides students with an overview of the Programme and introduces key institutions, initiatives, and frameworks, including PRME. Participants spend time identifying specific human rights concerns within their discipline, as well as reflecting on ‘How to Build a Better World’ through a group-based exercise.  The second workshop centres around developing as a responsible leader and developing the capacity to advocate for ourselves and others within the content of business and human rights: The third and final workshop aims to help students build the knowledge and capacity to motivate and inspire others to advance ethics and human rights within business:   This includes how they can motivate and inspire others to place a greater focus on ethics and human rights within the context of business.

How is the Forum involved as a partner?

I approached senior representatives from the Forum including the Chair, Glenn Bradley, during the summer of 2019 and they were very receptive to the ideas laid out. Representatives from the Forum have attended each session and contributed either formally or informally. For example, they gave a presentation about the work of the Forum at the first session and Glenn offered insights into the issues he has encountered in terms of human rights in his role as Head of Global Supply Chain at Hardscape, a leading landscaping material supplier. Glenn doesn’t shy away from discussing how Hardscape have discovered child labour within their supply chain and had to try to address it in an ethical and socially responsible manner. It is very important for the students to hear from someone so frank and open about the challenges they encounter and how they deal with them. I think having direct participation from Forum members adds weight and validity to the Programme that we wouldn’t necessarily have on our own. (Plus, on a personal level, I believe SDG 17: Partnership for the Goals is the linchpin in terms of driving the SDG agenda forward!).

How have the students responded the programme?

Very well! As 2019-2020 was the pilot year, we only had ten participants on the Programme from approximately five different disciplines. We were very fortunate to attract highly engaged, passionate individuals. Simply listening to them talk about the issues they care very deeply about – from the treatment of refugees to the challenges faced by people with disabilities in terms of accessing decent work – has been one of the most enriching experiences of my career to date.

What have been some of the challenges and how have you tackled these?

Our first challenge related to the recruitment of participants. We are a large institution with a campus that covers a relatively wide geographical area. I sent emails to colleagues within other departments asking them to make their students aware of the Programme, but this had limited impact. I have realised that speaking with students face-to-face, ideally at the start or end of a lecture, is probably the optimal way to recruit. Another option I am exploring is recording a video to promote the Programme, ideally featuring current participants discussing their experience.

The second major challenge has been the impact of the Coronavirus crisis. Our third and final workshop was scheduled for late March and it unfortunately had to be postponed, alongside the student-led event. These will either be rescheduled for September/October 2020 or be delivered online. We will begin recruiting the next cohort in late August with a view to potentially having to complete their first session virtually too. It is by no means ideal but the content of Programme, which includes a number of breakout sessions and worksheets, lends itself reasonably well to being delivered online.

How have these students impacted the way the school approaches human rights topics?  

As the Programme is so new it is difficult to fully measure what impact it is having. Participants have, however, informally reported that they have developed the knowledge and confidence to ask more questions both during their studies and within the workplace. Fundamentally, the Programme aims to give students a toolkit to advocate for themselves and others when it comes to ethics and human rights in business. As a School, we are consistently working to bring these issues to the fore through our teaching and research. For example, each year we capture data on how ethics, social responsibility, and sustainability are integrated at both module and programme level and look for ways to enhance this. It is a process that will take time, but I believe we are heading in the right direction.

How else are you engaging students as “partners” in the work you are doing on campus in the SDGs/sustainability generally?

This is an ongoing area of development. In addition to the Student Ambassador Programme, we have students engaging in consultancy projects that are aligned to the SDGs, completing their masters dissertations on topics related to sustainability, writing blogs for the School website, and sitting on committees to ensure that the student voice is heard. We are continually searching for new ways to partner with students, which is why PRiMEtime is such an invaluable resource. It is great to get inspiration from others!

Any interesting insights so far about the programme? What is working, what isn’t working, what more you could do?

I would really recommend building in time during the sessions to simply allow the students to chat with each other. Some of the most interesting and illuminating discussions around human rights arose as a result of this. However, one potentially sensitive issue that can arise is where there are participants from a country that has a poor record in terms of human rights, and this is raised by another student during a discussion. I think care needs to be taken that ensure that they do not feel as if they are being singled out or asked to carry a burden that is not theirs to bear. We have not had an issue in terms of failure to treat other participants with dignity and respect, but I think it is useful to clarify the importance of this at the beginning of every workshop.

Any advice for other schools thinking of doing something similar?

I would absolutely encourage it! It has been an enormously enriching experience for both students and staff. In addition, it has allowed us to forge deeper connections with the business community. We are more than happy to share the resources we have developed, simply send me an email (laura.steele@qub.ac.uk).

What’s next?

Cohort 2! As mentioned above, we will begin recruiting the second cohort in late August 2020. Initially the aim had been to refine the delivery of the Programme further in 2020-2021, however, our focus instead may be on how to deliver one or more of the workshops online.



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