The Interview UK
Staffordshire University
Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic)

Annabel Kiernan

In the diverse landscape of higher education, the importance of fostering an inclusive culture cannot be overstated. At every stage of the learning journey, practitioners have a profound responsibility to cultivate an environment where all students feel valued, respected, and empowered. 

In today’s conversation, Co-Host of The Interview Max Webber met with Professor Annabel Kiernan, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic) at Staffordshire University, to discuss topics ranging from approaches to creating a safe and inclusive learning environment to keeping students engaged at all stages of their university journey.

Annabel's Journey

Max: Let’s kick off with a brief introduction to yourself and your organisation.

I’m Annabel Kiernan, and I’m Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic) at Staffordshire University. Our main campus is based in Stoke-On-Trent but we also have campuses in Stafford, Lichfield, and London. Our facilities serve between twelve and fourteen thousand students and we also have partnerships with universities internationally. There’s plenty to keep us busy!

Max: Safety has become a key concern for many students. What’s your approach to creating a safe and inclusive learning environment at the university? 

One of my roles involves working closely with the Students’ Union, chairing the Union’s Liaison Committee. Those kinds of questions about safety are at the heart of our agenda. We’ve approached the issue through a number of different avenues. In terms of security, we have a campus police officer and wardens to help look after our halls of residence and university buildings. When it comes to safety in a broader sense, we’re also thinking about the interactions between students and the support services we offer. Communication is key, and it’s our responsibility to keep students up-to-date and informed. We do a lot of work around signposting, and we have a variety of digital tools students can use to find information and check in with us. To make those efforts effective, it’s important that we collaborate very closely with the Students’ Union.

Max: What measures have you put in place to address sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour on campus?

It’s an ongoing challenge. Many of our students are coming into a new environment, with new stresses and strains, and they might not know how to deal with certain behaviours. Students need to understand what is and what isn’t acceptable. So we’ve collaborated with the Students’ Union to develop a new citizenship module for onboarding. The content is led entirely by students, and it focuses around which behaviours are appropriate and which are not. We’re rolling that out this year for the first time, and we’re excited to see how it works in action. But we’re also looking at how our academic staff can support a more inclusive environment. You see different behaviours in different spaces, so it’s important that our colleagues know how to create a safe environment for students.

Max: It can be difficult to keep students engaged in issues like diversity and inclusion. How do you encourage them to buy in long term?

It’s not just about new students — we check in regularly at key points across the whole student life cycle. Our academic mentors, student support staff, and the welfare and well-being teams all play a key role. It’s important to identify issues before they arise. But you can’t just have a one-size-fits-all approach: you need to understand the nature of each individual challenge and take decisive action. It’s important to have a code of conduct and a student charter, but you might still encounter behaviours that aren’t covered by that. So last year, we launched our Student Futures manifesto, which tries to imbue our culture and identity – what it’s like and what it means to be part of our university.

Max: Your institution has done a lot of work to address attainment gaps. What are the most important things to get right to make students of all demographics feel welcomed and included?

It’s a huge challenge across the sector. Everyone is working hard to address attainment differentials, but no one has got it quite right yet. One thing that has been really helpful is the new Access and Participation Plans and the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register. Those allow us to look beyond the learners and the staff to examine the environment and context in which we operate. We understand that interventions need to be very specific if they are going to be embedded and understood. Many of our students go out on placements to companies and public sector organisations, but many of them can have a challenging experience when it comes to inclusion. So we’ve done a lot of work with employers about how to create an inclusive environment. I’m very fortunate to have colleagues who are doing some excellent work on attainment gaps, and that can help to improve things for the whole sector.

Max: What’s your approach to making sure students are aware of inclusive practices so they can have open conversations and speak across difference?

It’s a joint effort between our academic mentoring and student support teams. We’re looking very closely at how they interact with students during their time with us so we can find the best points of contact. The Students’ Union plays a key role, as they are often the first signal when something goes wrong in a particular area. We’re doing a lot of work around awareness, and we’re currently working on a project about better practice for supporting neurodiverse students. We have a significant population of students to whom that applies, so we need to make sure we have the right kind of learning spaces to help them thrive.

Max: How do you make students aware of which policies and support are in place to help them?

We also have an app called Beacon which helps students to find where they can access the support and resources in place to help them. Our Students’ Union has some excellent officers with very clear commitments, and their peer-to-peer approach is crucial to getting the key messages out there. 

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

Be yourself. If you try to be something you’re not, that won’t be authentic, and you can’t have the same commitment and passion. 

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Max Webber
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