Responding to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge challenge for all universities, and each Higher Education institution has taken a unique approach to transitioning students back into campus life.
As Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at the University of Bath, Cassie Wilson led her university’s approach to the pandemic, keeping quality student experience at the centre of her work.
GoodCourse Community Engagement lead Kira Matthews asks Cassie about how she designed and implemented strategies to improve the student experience during various national lockdowns, and how her role has evolved since.
I didn’t plan to go into the student experience field, but I found that I always enjoyed working in that area whenever it happened to fall under my remit. I finished my PhD in sports biomechanics in 2003 and fell into academia!
Students need to have face-to-face interactions with each other - not everything works online, and we remain very aware of that fact.
The longer I continued teaching, the more opportunities opened up for me to take on roles like course director. For me, the most interesting part of these jobs was getting to work with students. I continued to rise into more senior roles within my department: I spent 5 years as Associate Dean for teaching and learning before my university decided to create a specific Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience role, which I was very excited to apply for.
I started as Pro Vice-Chancellor almost three years ago now, so a big part of my work has involved leading our response to the coronavirus pandemic, and I’m very proud of the success that I feel Bath had in this. The pandemic was obviously an incredibly challenging time for everyone, but it was a privilege to work with my colleagues to overcome the biggest hurdles.
One thing we did was set up an online response centre where students could ask questions and find updates on university decisions as soon as they were available. We also put special measures in place to support self-isolating students, like delivering Sunday dinners and xboxes. We always kept thinking about student experience and making in-person interactions happen where we could within the limits of the law, and supplementing those with virtual activities where it made sense to.
Students need to have face-to-face interactions with each other – not everything works online, and we remain very aware of that fact. At the same time though, there are some things that work just as well or better remotely, and we know what those are now. For example, while we make sure that students have their first meetings with their personal tutors in person, we can use Teams chats and calls to keep that relationship building over time without students having to come on to campus to have a quick chat.
Similarly, student societies and sports clubs are always going to work best in person, but students have found new ways to connect with each other remotely that they weren’t aware of before lockdown happened. Mental health support is another thing that can work incredibly well online, though we still offer face-to-face support where this is better for students.
Mental health and wellbeing has always been an integral part of the student experience, but never moreso than during the pandemic, and the formalisation of approaches to student experience in my role has meant that we pay more and more attention to it going forward. The services in place were already very good when I started in my job, so it has been fantastic to build on that already strong foundation. Signing up for the new Mental Health charter was a very easy decision, but it has also been an extra motivator in our push to offer better support and identify weak spots in our existing offering. We’re hoping to submit our application for the accreditation by the end of this calendar year.
There has been a huge shift in terms of the things the Higher Education sector turns its attention to now. Our overarching approach is to speak to students as much as possible, and often they’re proactive in coming to us with their ideas themselves. For example, our students put together an anti-racist campus action plan in 2020 and presented it back to us, and we met them with the changes we could make immediately and ways in which we could integrate those points into our ongoing strategy.
To work with students as effectively as possible, it’s important to see how change happens. We have had students tell us that they didn’t previously realise how many processes were involved in our institutional decision-making, and that we should be louder about the things we’re doing to respond to their concerns.
You can’t do everything – there will be so many pulls on your time, so it’s important to set your priorities by listening to stakeholders, of which students are the most important.
Dr Doris Miller, an American academic who when I began my research was one of the few prominent women in sports biomechanics. Her success showed me that I could exist in a very male-dominated field.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This book made me think a lot about what people from ethnic minority backgrounds have to deal with in this country on a daily basis, and has really informed my approach to supporting as wide a range of students as possible.