Every university is unique, and so is every cohort of students. Treating students as individual learners while keeping sight of a cohort’s demographic is a difficult — but essential — part of delivering a quality student experience.
As Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), Alison Honour is constantly looking for new ways to support university students after the difficulties they have faced in the last few years. GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews sits down with Alison to learn more about what she is doing to make sure that every student has the best experience possible at CCCU.
I’ve only been in my current role at CCCU for five months, but I’ve spent more than thirty years in the Higher Education (HE) sector. I’m part of the first generation in my family to go to university — I’m from a low-income area, and feel really fortunate that my parents had a very international outlook and made sure that we got to learn about other parts of the world.
My father in particular was very passionate about social justice and equality in the workplace, and that has really informed my outlook as a professional in the HE space. To me, it’s crucial that education is inclusive and helps break down barriers.
I have a creative background — my first degree was in Fine Art. This might not be a traditional starting point for a HE professional, but I think that this has helped me to be more agile and resourceful in my work.
I think that one trap university staff can fall into is failing to consider how the student body is changing over time. According to the latest data from UCAS, students from POLAR Q1 areas are applying to university in growing numbers, while the application rates are remaining about the same for other POLAR groups. On top of this, applications from Black, Asian and minoritised pupils and pupils who identify as neither White nor Black or Asian have grown by 15% respectively.
It’s so important for universities to respond effectively and appropriately to the new student demographic. We’re still seeing attainment gaps across the sector, and it’s important to address this by considering the student journey holistically. We know that a lot of our Black students don’t attend one of our open days before studying here, for example, because of the expense involved or because of personal commitments, and these pre-university challenges really matter.
We also have to acknowledge that there isn’t one universal student experience. Half of our students are commuter students, for example, so we need to consider how we support them and help them feel that they belong. One issue I’m working to address at CCCU is that our academic staff doesn’t represent the diversity of our student body. Students need role models, and need to feel reflected and represented in the professional bodies around them.
While I worked at Birmingham City University, I worked with the university’s head of EDI — Imogeen Denton — to develop an antiracist action plan. I’m very proud of how we worked to create a strategy and an approach that looked at the issues students of different races face as exhaustively as possible.
I’m also very proud to support colleagues and students who have worked on initiatives that consider how to decolonise curricula, and that look at how students are experiencing racism and discrimination while on placements as part of their courses. We really want to reshape not just our university, but the sectors our students graduate into.
On top of this, I’ve worked on several projects in collaboration with student consultants. If universities want to learn from students’ lived experiences, then it’s really important to pay them for their time and expertise. This is psychologically and emotionally demanding work, and we can’t expect our students to give us the answers for free!
I’m always proud and excited to work with students, and really feel that I thrive in environments where students are present.
The last few years have been really difficult for school leavers, so we are constantly looking for new ways to respond to the challenges they continue to face. We’re one of around 27 universities that have signed up to the Student Futures manifesto, which considers what school leavers need from us to thrive.
It’s so important for universities to respond effectively and appropriately to the new student demographic. We’re still seeing attainment gaps across the sector, and it’s important to address this by considering the student journey holistically.
In terms of our structural adaptation, we’ve created two new director-level roles in the areas of student well-being and student resolution and protection. The latter comes in response to the Office for Students’ new requirements on how universities respond to sexual violence and misconduct. We’re also reinforcing our Expect Respect online modules, and we have an online active bystander module too, which is signposted to students throughout induction weeks.
Think about how much the culture of an institution matters to you, and who you want to work with and for. Really consider whether or not you can progress and develop as a professional within the university you choose to work for.
I admire so many of my current and past colleagues, but I greatly admire Professor Jason Arday for his intersectional approach to education, and particularly his continued efforts to address the underrepresentation of Women of Colour in academia and in leadership roles.
Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum. This book was suggested to me by a student, and it taught me so much about the importance of staying open-minded and learning from the people you’re working to support.
Continuing to be a ‘learning leader’ is important to me in terms of my own personal and professional growth and I try to take every opportunity to listen and learn from our staff and students who continue to inspire and motivate me.