Providing tailored support to a large number of diverse students is a challenge that all universities face, particularly when resources are limited. Yet doing so effectively is so significant to a student’s success.
Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Alan McAlpine, Deputy Director of Student Success at Curtin University, to discuss his journey in Higher Education and how his teams approach supporting the institution’s 50,000+ students.
Sure, I’m Alan McAlpine, Deputy Director of Student Success at Curtin University. Student Success sits under our Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, and within Student Life and Community more specifically — which comprises a wide range of support-type services for students. Personally, I look after three main teams. One is Orientation and Transition, for both on-campus and online students — the fun activities as well as the more logistical stuff. The second is called the Social Impact Hub, which is a relatively new team that has brought together a bunch of our co-curricular activities and has a focus on social impact. The final team is Careers and Employability, which is close to my heart given that’s where my background is.
It’s kind of a long story! Keeping it succinct — I’ve been in the career development field for over 20 years, including running a careers service for 10-12 years in Queensland. There was a big restructure at my previous institution that saw me end up in a role I wasn’t enjoying, so I made the decision not to pursue a renewal of that contract. As I’m heavily involved in our national professional association, a peer through that network flagged this opportunity here in Perth. Curtin’s not a research-led university (like a GO8); it’s about working with students who come from non-traditional backgrounds and bringing them into higher education and helping them succeed which really appealed to me.
That’s a big question! It’s important that each student feels like you’re working with them as an individual; not as just a number among our 50,000 students. Achieving that with limited resources and so many students isn’t easy — it’s about designing programmes that can help create that connection, that feeling of belonging to the institution. Giving students a range of choices and opportunities to support their success and to get support helps.
It’s certainly not an easy thing to do, and is something we’re always working on. There can be a tendency for communications and support to be duplicated across the institution, so aiming to keep things coordinated with the right stakeholders aligned is important. We now spread some of the support and help information across the first four weeks — drip feeding in line with when students are likely to need the information helps maximise impact of what is available at the time when they are most in need.
At Curtin, we have a mandatory online learning module called Respect Now Always, which is all-around positive relationship behaviours — what’s acceptable and what’s not. All students have to complete this upon commencement at the university; if it’s not completed, their end of semester results are withheld until it is. This helps raise awareness and ensure positive behaviours are well understood. There are also hard copy materials around campus that share this message and we have a strong focus on our student code of conduct.
I’ll mention two things on this. One has been recent work in our digital communications team, who have outlined ‘student perspectives ( around 12 different ‘personas’) that capture the characteristics of various typical groups of students, which then helps us determine the particular needs of different students, and cater to these. The other is the use of career registration, a very short survey that we’ve setup to signpost students to particular resources and information that’ll be most relevant to them, based on their answers to the questions. At a practical level, I’d say to all my staff that you don’t just send a generic email back to a student — you call them to talk things through on a personal level.
Our pyramid approach is about helping my staff qualify how best to structure their work and spend their time. For example, it’s very satisfying to have a career conversation with a student, and see that lightbulb moment — which makes it tempting to spend a lot of time having those one-to-one conversations, rather than spending time developing and building resources that can guide a large number of students to self-help. Particularly as the students who reach out to the careers service can often not be the ones who are most in need, rather than focus our efforts on the students who haven’t even thought about us and/or are most in need of our expertise. We also use academic engagement indicators to flag which students are likely to face potential issues, and target our outreach and resources around that.
My background is as a research scientist (which gave me my logical and analytical brain), and once you’re on a certain path it can be hard to change course. The best advice I got is to take the time periodically to stop, reflect on the path you’re on, and see if there are other opportunities that might be better suited to you.