The mark of a truly inspired Higher Education (HE) practitioner is one that can apply lateral thinking and an array of personal experience to facilitating the personal development of young people.
Anthony Moss, Associate PVC of Education and Student Experience at London Southbank University sat down with GoodCourse’s Community Engagement Lead, Kira Matthews, to discuss the joys and challenges of working in HE, and his commitment to meeting the needs of all his students.
I’m Associate PVC of Education and Student Experience and a Professor of Addictive Behavioural Science at London South Bank University.
We’re part of a group structure: as well as the LSB university, there are colleges and academies, which is quite a unique structure for a HE institution. I’ve spent nearly half my life here, it’s a great community and a lovely place to work.
I came from a working-class background and had an experience lots of first gens have, which is one of not knowing if you fit. However, it was a very supportive environment and I developed a real passion for my subject. I decided to do a PhD, and then ended up teaching the undergraduate degree here. I developed a real passion for teaching and working with students, helping them learn and develop. That’s why I stayed on in the sector.
I’ve worked in a lot of different educational settings. My claim to fame is that I’ve taught at every level of education here in the UK, up to Ph.D., and have worked extensively as a private tutor for children with special educational needs. I have a real passion for the transformative impact of education and that’s what keeps me in this space. There’s still uneven access to educational opportunities across the UK and globally. Seeing the positive impact keeps me going.
Something I find heartwarming is speaking to mature students. When I ask them what they plan to do next, often their answer is, I’m just going to go back to my job. I was confused by this motivation, but then they would explain that they wanted to illustrate to their kids that getting a degree was within reach for them — that they could get a degree because their mum’s got one. That intergenerational impact is important to me.
As a sector, we need real radical change. I feel strongly that the way we design and deliver courses in HE is too focused on content, standards and quality assurance. They’re important, but there’s not adequate focus on student experience. That’s a structural issue affecting the tertiary education because primary and secondary schools operate differently in this regard.
You can have amazing student unions, activities and services, but if the time they spend in the classroom doesn’t meet the same standard of students feeling they can participate and be involved, then it’s exclusionary. An event going on in the Students’ Union (SU) in the evening doesn’t make up a learning experience that is at heart, exclusionary. It’s a big piece of work for the sector if we want to take inclusion and belonging seriously.
There’s a SEN (Special Educational Needs) review going on across England at the moment, which is only going up to FE level, it doesn’t include universities. That’s another example of how we’ve been unhelpfully stratified. I want students to feel that support permeate through. Usually, that support becomes very different, or doesn’t exist at all.
You can have amazing student unions, activities and services, but if the time they spend in the classroom doesn’t meet the same standard of students feeling they can participate and be involved, then it’s exclusionary.
My more specific answer in regards to LSBU is an initiative to try to understand more about our students. There’s a tendency to extrapolate a stereotypical student experience out, rather than consider the diversity of the population.
We’ve introduced a strengths mapping exercise which helps them to understand different parts of the university they can access for different types of support. It gives us an idea of how best to support our students and where they feel their strengths lie and allows us to put them in contact with the right parts of the university. The best part is that it’s helped us to see areas we need to increase service provision.
We also democratise this information, so that it’s accessible to all staff. We hear a lot about wanting students to feel seen, but I prefer the idea of wanting our students to feel known. If they divulge personal information to someone, rather than that person having to repeat their whole story again, notes are made in the system so that well-being advisors already have context. It’s not that institutions don’t care, but sometimes inefficient infrastructure makes it feel that way.
Work we’ve done around assessment springs to mind. HE overassesses, and it’s an unpleasant experience for students. It’s high stakes and challenging. The conventional approach also drives some of the differential outcomes that happen with underprivileged students.
The reason for that is that universities design, deliver and award their own qualifications, rather than it being externalised. We have the royal charter to do that, so we have to protect it. I’ve worked in sixth forms and it’s a different process — you work with students to help them understand content from an exam board.
I did a piece of work when I was the Director of Education in our applied science school, using something called TESTA: transforming the experience of students through assessment. It’s a methodology that’s been designed to encourage reflection on the way we do assessments. Working with students on these surveys gave us insight and provided time for reflection.
Some of the modules are being assessed the way they are because that’s how someone designed it 15 years ago — and no-one has thought to change it since! It was fascinating to hear from students about assessment, in so many ways it diverged from the thoughts of the staff.
I’m proud that a couple of years after that, we saw a massive reduction in the awarding gap between White and BAME students because we made our assessments more inclusive.
I would encourage those early in their careers to consider that what HE needs now is people willing to be involved in a more diverse range of activities than perhaps was the case 30 years ago.
Most institutions are mainly reliant on income from teaching. One of the challenges is making sure you’re involved and willing to engage in diverse tasks outside of that. We need to empower our colleagues to believe they can change things. So much is done because of tradition, but academics have a huge amount of freedom to take opportunities to make changes and update things in a positive way.
My current boss Professor Deborah Johnson, I’ve learnt a huge amount of work around EDI and how we hold ourselves accountable, inspire colleagues and make change on a structural level.
I’ve recently appointed somebody as a Decolonising Research Fellow — Megha Kashyap has only been with us for a few weeks but is doing amazing work, with such knowledge, passion and insight. She’s really one to watch, I feel privileged to work with colleagues like Deborah and Mega.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. There’s a social commentary in his work that comes across with humour, but has a serious undertone. They get you thinking about the absurdity of tradition we hold onto that perpetuates inequality.