Student life is changing quickly, and institutions need innovators to help them keep up. This has been fundamental for Claire Slater, the Director of Student Life and Well-being at the University of Bristol, who has spent her career advocating for student welfare and pioneering new forms of support.
Claire sat down with Kira Matthews, Community Engagement Lead at GoodCourse, to talk about her journey in Higher Education (HE), her groundbreaking work on the Never Okay campaign, and how to combat unacceptable behaviour on campuses.
After graduating with a degree in French and Politics, I went to France for six years and started teaching. When I came back to the UK, I was lucky enough to get a job at a university. I was really in the right place at the right time: I ended up working in academic guidance and student well-being support. From there I worked my way up, managing various services — I worked at Keele University for a long time before I came to Bristol four years ago. In over thirty years of working in HE, I have seen a lot of changes.
It was a fantastic example of collaborative work between the university and the Student Union. The active bystander campaign was about calling out and challenging all forms of unacceptable behaviour, whether it was homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, or sexual violence. We did something that was very innovative at the time, using pictures and words to give examples of unacceptable behaviour. Alongside the Never Okay campaign, Active Bystander Workshops gave students the confidence and the skills to speak out themselves to challenge unacceptable behaviours. The whole university community came together to support this campaign and was committed to making a difference.
First, it raised awareness, and second, it gave students confidence. Students were more likely to come forward to raise concerns or get support because they could see the university was committed to making a change. It overlapped with a lot of other work I have done to tackle sexual violence: When you’re vocal, when you speak out, when you are open, students are willing to ask for help. Many students are afraid to speak out, worried they won’t be believed or they won’t be taken seriously, and we need to give them the confidence to come forward and get the support they need.
Many students are afraid to speak out, worried they won’t be believed or they won’t be taken seriously, and we need to give them the confidence to come forward and get the support they need.
My experience as a Sexual Violence Liaison Officer has been key. At Keele, I worked with LimeCulture, a professional body which offers training to address sexual violence. We knew there was a gap in university support, so we worked to develop specialist training for sexual violence liaison officers. It’s now been rolled out across 40 or 50 universities across the UK, and many institutions have their own dedicated liaison officers working within their teams. I helped to introduce this specialist support at Bristol, and we now have 14 members of staff trained as liaison officers. But work is still ongoing to raise awareness around this issue: We need to make sure students know we have those resources available.
We’ve also reviewed our discipline regulations and set up a new team called the Student Resolution Service. They exist to support students who want to make a complaint, whether against another student or a member of staff. Overall, it’s important to be open and vocal about this issue to change attitudes and behaviours.
We have over 30,000 students, and around a third of those are international. It’s important to bring together people of different backgrounds to discuss issues openly.
It’s essential that students feel like they belong here. Covid had a big impact, and many students felt isolated and disconnected. We saw a significant increase in the volume and complexity of well-being issues. So we set up a new group called Community Development which brought together different teams from across the university and the Students Union. It now serves as a forum to plan a range of diverse campaigns and activities which enable students to get together, get involved and build communities. The key is listening to students, understanding their lived experiences, and responding to feedback.
Students want more diverse opportunities to socialise, often in an alcohol-free environment. You might be surprised by some of the things that are popular — traditional crafts, gardening, film nights. It’s important that students have the opportunity to host their own events. They need to have the freedom to choose.
It’s hard to pick just one, so I’ll give you five instead: take opportunities, try new things, network in your field, sign up for a professional body, and collaborate with others.
That’s a difficult question, because there are so many inspirational people out there! But I did choose one person: Jill Stevenson, Dean of EDI at the University of Stirling. She’s very passionate, and really committed to making a difference every day.
Another hard question! Over the years, so many books have been inspirational at different times. In the end, I chose a book called The Hunting Ground, about experiences of sexual assault on US campuses and the challenges faced by survivors. It’s not an easy read, but it does have a message of hope. It inspired me in my own work to fight sexual violence and provide support to survivors.