Last month Advance HE joined up with University of the West of Scotland to hold Scotland's second symposium, this time with a focus on retention and enhancing the student experience. Colleagues came together to explore key issues in student retention, student experience and assessment and feedback.
Michelle Morgan, Associate Dean for Student Experience at Bournemouth University, opened the event with a keynote titled ‘Supporting Student Transitions’, exploring the tension between different roles, departments and professionals and how we are all servants to the academic imperative. Morgan also highlighted that institutions tend to focus much energy on the first two weeks of a student’s university experience and latterly the whole of the first year. Other academic years (levels) are often neglected, especially the mid-point of the degree. Much of the literature on supporting student transitions tends to focus on those new to HE in the first year of study, which is the main entry point for 18-21 year olds. However, there are significant numbers of students who articulate or are direct entry into HE from elsewhere and their starting point is different; often these students receive less help transitioning into HE and so more needs to be done to ensure that these students have a positive experience at their point of entry.
Morgan highlighted the positive benefits and outputs of studying at University, with opportunities for social mobility, increases in community engagement and greater social tolerance. In addition, graduate employment contributes to the strength of the economy and studying at university can lead to greater engagement in the democratic process. However Morgan was keen to point out that there are unintended consequences of the HE system with graduates being overqualified for the jobs in which they find themselves working, leading to negative intergenerational mobility and potentially disengagement from politics. In addition there are high levels of study debt making home ownership, pensions and disposable income a real challenge for graduates.
For the first time in 19 years Universities in Scotland are enjoying a student retention rate that is better than the UK average but Morgan explained this is no time to relax, it is important to evaluate this success and keep working on the approaches that support students to be successful, even if that means counselling them out of their degree programme. Universities need to ensure that we provide adequate support for those students who feel they no longer want to study at HE and offer them good advice about their next steps while letting them know that the door to HE is still open to them in the future.
The key to this, as Morgan pointed out, is managing expectations. She was critical of the way in which university marketing departments portray life as a student: the images used are often glamorising the experience when in reality it can be a very different story. The suggestion is to use real students to showcase what life is like at their university, provide helpful videos that talk about the reality of living in halls or using other services and facilities, giving the tips and tricks to get the most out of their time in HE.
Morgan also picked up on the media use of the ‘snowflake generation’ and quickly set about debunking the myth that millennial students are somewhat emotionally poor, over-confident and service orientated, viewing their HE experience as a transactional relationship. What institutions need to understand is that student lives are complex, students’ skills on entry have changed, their reasons for studying a degree have altered and their resilience and grit are different. However all students deserve a high quality student experience and students need to be supported into, through and beyond higher education.
Morgan drew upon her extensive experience of designing high quality student experience and used the student life cycle model to explain where, how and what support needs to be focussed on students. The model is grouped into five themes, Curriculum and Assessment, Pedagogy, Finance, Employment and finally Support.
Morgan’s last comment to the audience stemmed from her years of research into student transition, attainment and retention. Drawing on her published work she reiterated;
‘We need to inspire new generations to engage in higher education, to believe in the benefits of HE and to invest in it. By ensuring that no student is forgotten or left behind, through adopting an inclusive strategy in all its activities, sustainability should be achievable’ (Morgan 2013)
Following a great networking lunch the afternoon was devoted to the Advance HE Academic Leads, Hugh Mannerings (Retention) and Dr Sam Elkington (Assessment & Feedback). Each gave an overview of their areas of work, focussing on a brief overview of the Frameworks used to support dialogue and reflection on practice. Each highlighted the current challenges and opportunities around the student experience, with Mannerings talking about the cornerstones for ensuring good practice in student retention, transition activities, personal tutoring and peer to peer networks (peer assisted learning, mentoring, buddying systems, etc).
The afternoon session also saw colleagues engage in a student lifecycle activity, centred around exploring how a newcomer to university might experience the first year of their studies. Participants were encouraged to consider a number of positive or negative experiences that might impact on a student’s time. This activity provided a significant opportunity for colleagues to evaluate what support students should have access to, along with when, where in the lifecycle they experience the greatest pressure.
Finally as a plenary session colleagues were invited to reflect on the day and encouraged to share what they will take away from the day and either change in their practice, consider at programme level or take back to discuss at strategic level. A number of suggestions were discussed and Advance HE looks forward to hearing about any developments which arise from this symposium.
Colleagues are invited to share their own good practice around the student experience through writing a blog for Advance HE.
The next Advance HE symposium will be hosted by the University of Edinburgh on 4th June 2018; this event will explore the relationship between teaching and research for student learning in our HE institutions with a particular focus on supporting those in Programme/Course Leadership roles. External guest speakers and HEI-led plenary sessions and parallel workshops will explore best practice and role-specific challenges, with post-event outcomes shared with a parallel event in Wales. Advance HE sees these symposiums as a chance to bring colleagues together, open up opportunities to network, meet new and existing colleagues and to foster a wider discussion around what is important in HE.
Advance HE’s commitment to Higher Education is about building long term relationships with everyone who is keen to develop and enhance their teaching and learning practice, work strategically within and across the sector and to share good practice.
Finally Advance HE would like to acknowledge the support and professionalism extended to all who attended the symposium, and in particular Claire Mackie and Dr Jane MacKenzie from UWS who hosted the event.
Hugh Mannerings is Academic Lead for Retention in Advance HE and is currently leading on a various sector projects supporting universities to improve their practice, policy and support for students.