Increasing diversity at UK universities is a necessary push towards a more equitable society, but diversity alone is not enough. For diversity to have the desired impact, creating a sense of inclusion, belonging, and community must be at the centre of the university’s initiatives.
Cillian Ryan, Pro Vice-Chancellor International at Nottingham Trent University, sat down with GoodCourse to discuss the university’s plan to push for international diversity and the initiatives in place to emphasise inclusion.
I got my PhD in Canada and have worked in a number of places such as the US, the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Ireland. I’ve always been engaged with working internationally, so I’ve got quite a wide range of international experience.
Coming to Nottingham Trent, we have a lot of British students here, the most of any UK university. With my background in working internationally, I’m looking to expand our emphasis now to international students.
We have a set of engagement programmes, including meeting with international students in person and setting up times specifically for them to meet one another, building a sense of community. This is both face-to-face and online, so they can get to know other students before they come here. All of this helps to build a sense of belonging.
When it comes to showing international students our university, existing students do that, so they are making a connection from the moment they arrive. We specifically try to match up new international students with someone from the same country as them as a way of helping them feel they belong.
We have a space called the Global Lounge — this is designed for both UK and international students, and anyone with an interest in learning. We run events there and have it as an open space, and it gets very busy throughout the day. We have a lot of activities happening there, and we feel that these enhance the sense of belonging.
It’s about giving students the chance to speak about their own experiences but also encouraging UK students to engage in cultural conversations too.
We provide training for all staff to build up their international competence; this means they understand the background of each international student and how they might have learnt before arriving here. This is essential in making students feel included. It’s about understanding everything that makes up that person’s identity; previous education, experiences, traditions and beliefs. This helps students to integrate, so it is crucial.
I think one of our great advantages here is our strong emphasis on personalisation — we don’t want our students to be anonymous to us. All of our programmes are taught in an individual way, so students know their tutors, have peer support, and integrate into the rest of the university. This helps students overcome challenges they might face.
We run a large and varied culture programme, focusing on everything from theatre and music to different kinds of culture from across the world. This year we are organising initiatives that focus on cultural meaning around the city. All of these things help overcome the challenges of integration.
First, it’s about helping people understand what the boundaries are, how to communicate with people, and how not to make assumptions based on culture. We offer a consent programme at the very beginning of the semester. Then we have a programme called NTU Respect throughout the year, which emphasises the importance of respecting everyone else on campus, no matter who they are or where they come from. It's absolutely crucial that we establish that concept of respect.
The next step is encouraging students to report things. We know a lot of students don’t want to do that or name a perpetrator, but we encourage them to come forward anyway, even if it's anonymously, so that we can identify where the problem is and try to help. Another thing we've put into place is our Peers Programme which is a system for staff and students where, if you have experienced something on campus and need someone to speak to, you can go to a trained peer support officer and talk it through. This helps students to differentiate between, say, a disagreement and harassment — not that it’s always clear cut, but it can help students come forward if something serious has happened.
We use data in order to find this out. This shows us a picture of each student. When there is low engagement, we know it might mean low performance in some cases. We then intervene with students with low engagement to find out more; sometimes, it’s harmless, but others have genuine challenges and have difficulty coming in and completing their course. We have student support services to help with this process.
During Covid, we saw the same spectrum of engagement, and again we had to find ways to provide support when students were struggling. We were one of the first universities that went back to face-to-face learning, and we found that the response there was mostly positive, but some were happy to keep things online. We want to build more flexible learning because of this so that students always have the option over how they learn.