The Interview UK
Middlesex University
Pro Vice Chancellor for Education and Student Experience

Christine Broughan

The landscape of Higher Education (HE) is constantly changing, but recent years in particular have brought a remarkable evolution in the sector. From the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns to the escalating cost of living crisis, and the intensification of identity-related issues, universities are compelled to continually adapt in line with their students’ needs. 

In conversation with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, Christine Broughan, interim Pro Vice Chancellor for Education and Student Experience at Middlesex University, delved into how Student Support teams can take on evolutionary challenges, and bring about their own revolutionary changes. 

Christine's Journey

Luke: Let’s start with an introduction to yourself and your institution…

I’m Christine Broughan, the first professor of HE from Coventry University, and I’ve been working in HE since I finished my studies 25 years ago. I first worked at Coventry University, before moving to Northumbria University where I worked until retirement. In July 2023, I was asked to return to work on a twelve-month contract as the Pro Vice-Chancellor at Middlesex University, a medium-sized institution with an intake of approximately 8,000 new students every year. We have the highest number of students who’ve had access to free school meals in the past, a significant number with BTEC awards, a considerable number of mature students, and a diverse array of societies in our Students’ Union, all situated on a beautiful campus just twenty minutes outside London.

Luke: How do you support students through issues such as the cost of living crisis and mental health challenges? 

Our students, both domestic and international, often face tough choices about accommodation and work due to financial issues, making sustainable funding a crucial aspect of our support. Though we have a strong and accessible hardship fund, we work to embed support into our curriculum, ensuring students are only on campus three days a week so they can take on part-time jobs, and reduce their travel costs. During the COVID lockdowns, we saw that students from disadvantaged backgrounds did better with the No Detriment policy, so we’ve been exploring why it had such a positive impact, and are seeking ways to achieve similar benefits within our regular curriculum. In terms of mental health, as well as making our assessment deadlines and exam timetables as forgiving as possible, we encourage faculty, staff and students to abide by our community principle – ‘acting with care and integrity’ – and to be aware of, respect, and support each other through mental health issues. Because many of our students are time-poor, embedding these things into the academic curriculum gives our support-based initiatives the best chance at far-reaching impact. 

The University learnt a lot about how to support students during the pandemic and we’re continuing and expanding on that now. We support students as individuals and we get to know their story – their experiences and background - so we can help them to succeed throughout their journey. To support challenges linked to the cost of living crisis we’ve put a package of measures together to support students facing hardship because of the cost of living crisis. This includes a Living Costs Fun, advice on scholarships and bursaries, enabling students to earn while they learn by being employed by the university via the institution’s employment agency, Unitemps. We are committed to providing value for money for students, by reducing the costs of studying: offering free printing, free laptops for loan, free eTextbooks and reduced gym membership. We have also provided free hot breakfasts and dinners served in the Quad.

When there are so many pressures on students from financial worries to living away from home, it is important to support their wellbeing. This is why we provide a wealth of resources and support to students who feel stressed or anxious about an aspect of their university life – from apps and online guides, to healthy lifestyle advice, and group discussions. We also have specialist teams to support emotional wellness and mental health with access to free individual counselling sessions, workshops and support groups. No student is the same and so we aim to provide a range of options which our students can choose from.

Luke: How do you best engage time-poor students with your initiatives? 

Middlesex University has fantastic initiatives, yet the students who need access to them the most often end up being the least engaged, emphasising the importance of having support built into our curriculum. We also ensure, especially when it comes to belonging and inclusion, that we consider the broad range of challenges facing students in everything we do. We don’t just plan and execute initiatives for students who have enough time and money to be engaged with them, we also consider how these initiatives will be made available – and relevant – to a student with care responsibilities or a commuter student. To that end, we try to foster two-way communication through networks that students actually use, and our Students’ Union is a big help when it comes to discussing challenges, potential improvements, and the best ways to engage the wider student body.  

Luke: How do you create a sense of inclusion and belonging across campus? 

We want our students to have a positive experience on campus and see it as a welcoming place where they can connect with people from all over the world. We think even small things can make a difference - like the displays and events around campus that celebrate a range of festivals and holidays and sharing as many perspectives and voices on our social media channels as we can. In many ways, it’s easier for us at Middlesex University because three-quarters of our students are from the global majority, so there isn’t one dominant group, and our students can recognise people of similar identities simply by walking around campus. Co-creating initiatives with students helps us make them relevant to particular student groups, and educational for those of different identities, meaning we can effectively challenge the status quo while garnering buy-in. For students from deprived areas and backgrounds, belonging and inclusion pose different challenges, so our diverse staff population is key because simply seeing people from low-income backgrounds who have achieved success in their positions is very powerful. For example, we had an International Women in STEM event for staff and students, and it was inspiring to see students coming together with professionals, creating a sense of community and belonging while also reinforcing the notion that being their authentic selves will contribute to their success.  

Luke: How do you prepare your teams to evolve and challenge the status quo? 

The HE sector has changed beyond recognition in the last two decades, but many institutions still have an embedded culture that doesn’t encourage internal evolution. For example, when I started at Middlesex, I regularly used the word challenge in meetings, workshops, and committees, without realising that I was encouraging our teams to shy away from certain projects and tasks. I made sure to empower our staff to approach challenges actively because finding solutions is how we’ll learn and move forward, and that empowerment was achieved through being on the front foot in terms of things like finances, facilities and estates. When you have those strong and stable building blocks, and you don’t have to juggle the day-to-day challenges, you can start getting creative and tackling the really exciting stuff. We also need to ensure that those creative spaces are open to both staff and students, so they can highlight what we can do for them, and think outside of the box in terms of solutions. It’s important to make time for challenges, but only if you have a solid foundation on which evolutionary thinking can thrive.  

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received during your career? 

Be your authentic self, especially in terms of your leadership style, as that will not only allow you to achieve success but also encourage it in others. It’s easier said than done, but validation from my peers really helped me to reflect on my approach and take control of my work, and now that I have that confidence, I can put in place systems in which our staff can be their best selves. As employees are our biggest assets, when they have the space to succeed, they pass that same encouragement on to our students. It’s an approach that you should take outside of your career, too, because nurturing someone else’s abilities is often more rewarding than achieving success yourself. 

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