Arguably, no one quite understands the importance of incorporating the student voice into university decision-making more than those higher education practitioners who have been student representatives themselves.
This is certainly the case for Chris Shelley, Director of Student and Academic Services at the University of Greenwich, whose nuanced understanding of student needs ensures his cohorts have plenty of resources and opportunities to further their development outside of the classroom.
Chris sat down with GoodCourse Community Engagement lead Kira Matthews to discuss his journey into the sector, how Greenwich adapted to Covid-19, and the impressive initiatives he has co-developed around mental health awareness and support.
I’m the Director of Student and Academic Services at the University of Greenwich — my role captures all student experience and resources outside of academics and the library. That includes timetabling, student records, processing, and graduation ceremonies — lots of the stuff that students don’t see.
I was a student officer in my Student’s Union for two years. I worked in student residences, then at the National Union of Students (NUS), then Kings College London (KCL). Policies and issues affecting students have always been at the heart of my interests. I have to be in a role where you feel you have a tangible impact on the day-to-day life of students. Though not all of my work is seen, being able to influence the quality of student life is really powerful and rewarding.
At NUS, the work I was part of affected 7 million students. In a university setting, it’s smaller in scale but feels more direct.
NUS is the representative body of students. I got to understand what students wanted, it kept me grounded and focused on hearing what students had to say. The biggest impact has been alerting me to the importance of always involving students in what we do and encouraging them to be change-makers — not just passive recipients of education.
Some things you can see and feel — some you can’t. At Greenwich, I lead the development of our health and well-being strategy, which had priorly been an issue we didn’t really have clarity on. For people working directly in the student services department, you know how important well-being is, and you know what good well-being looks like. Outside of that, maybe not so much.
When people think of mental health, they tend to think of extreme, crisis events. We want to foster an understanding that we all have well-being, and all of us have periods of positive and negative well-being. The strategy was really successful in terms of getting that university-wide buy-in into what we’re trying to achieve. We got the funding to provide mental health awareness and training for 800 staff. They now understand signposting resources, signs to look for and the deeper nuances of mental health, which is great.
Mind, the charity, approached us as part of a project funded by Goldman Sachs to do workshops for students. They worked with 10 universities — for 8 of those places, there was an application process, but 2 places were handpicked — us being one of them. It’s great when something moves from a document you’re writing in your office, to students and staff receiving training from Mind’s mental health professionals, funded by Goldman Sachs!
When people think of mental health, they tend to think of extreme, crisis events. We want to foster an understanding that we all have well-being, and all of us have periods of positive and negative well-being.
We formed a new student engagement team that has just completed its first year of activity. I lobbied for this, and shape what it looked like. Its focus is on improving retention and reducing withdrawals. We have a central team that works with faculties and support services to funnel students into services as soon as possible.
I also created a student hub, shaping what it looks like, what the students need from that building, and how it can be a welcoming and accessible space. When the ribbon gets cut, it’ll be really rewarding.
All of our services moved remote. That wasn’t something we did as a standard part of our services offering at the time. It’s a skill to deliver counselling over the phone or zoom — it’s not an easy switch to make if you’re trained in face-to-face provision.
Quickly, staff had to undertake this training, and students had to understand how the service was different. It’s made it more accessible in many ways, because there is a real stigma around sitting in a room with a mental health practitioner. It can be a scary thing to do, so doing it on teams with the video off, or on the phone, make it that little bit easier.
It’s not an exaggeration to say lots of people are experiencing a form of slow PTSD from Covid. It was a traumatic event and now people are having to process a lifestyle change as we move out of it. I think the age group of people hardest hit were A-Level students. It’s a time where you’re just finding yourself socially, academically and sexually.
University is a formative experience, moving away from home and managing yourself financially. Without that period beforehand, suddenly getting thrust into a new environment where you’re expected to share space, manage money, sit in-person exams (which they haven’t done before) becomes an even larger pressure than it usually is.
It can be daunting, so we’ve got to try even harder to do the soft stuff to ensure people understand, and can locate the services on offer, and feel prepared to react to new and unfamiliar situations.
We’re encouraging students to get together more and more – we’ve extended our freshers week – which we now call Welcome Week, from one week to two weeks. We recognise it takes time to find your feet and make your way around campus. Going into big busy places now still causes anxiety for people. Soft skills, academic writing sessions, opportunities to chat with others can all happen during this time.
Last night I was at an award ceremony for our career mentors. We have over 1000 professionals who mentor our students and help them prepare for the world of work. It is possible to build these skills over teams and over the phone, but there’s nothing quite like meeting someone in real life!
Check who’s around the table every time you’re working on an initiative or a project, or developing a policy – is it just staff, and is just White male staff? Are you getting the right voices in the room? Sense-check things and kick ideas around in diverse focus groups. Additionally, if you want engagement with a policy, you need students to help shape what that looks like.
The people that amaze me every day are student union sabbatical officers. I used to be one, we worked all sorts of hours doing anything and everything. The pressures on today’s sabs make me realise I had it easy! Trying to take a macro view of issues and also meet the needs of specific demographics, whilst getting lobbied on social media platforms 24 hours a day is a lot. They do make real change for students, but it’s a thankless task.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge – she was an SU officer who I trained while I was at NUS. For a White man in a leadership position in an organisation, it’s a must-read to understand the lived experience of Black colleagues.