Creating a truly inclusive curriculum means working alongside students and listening to their wants and needs, not speaking at or about them. This is where a joint approach to academic and student support comes together within the broader idea of student success to allow students the best possible experience. Dr Emily McIntosh, Director of Student Success at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), sat down with Charles Sin, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss how she has set out to achieve this in her career.
I am the Director of Student Success at UWS. We have five campuses, four in the West of Scotland, in Paisley, Ayr, Lanarkshire, and Dumfries, and we also have a campus in London.
Having previously worked in academic and learning and teaching roles, I took a post in 2013 in student support at the University of Manchester. I developed a real interest in academic advising and student well-being over that time, and through doing teaching roles, I became interested in the grey area between Student Support and Teaching and Learning. This is where I saw the most potential for transformational change. I developed a new model for centralised support and saw that a lot going on behind the scenes was impacting student success.
I believe that inclusion must run through the heart of all student success. During Covid, I led a piece of work at Middlesex on the inclusive curriculum. I worked alongside dozens of colleagues and students to place inclusion at the heart of the curriculum. At that time, the pandemic had disrupted relationships, and how students and staff, formally and informally, make connections at university. Everything we knew before COVID about how students belong and make connections was under strain. The pandemic showed us a lot of inequalities in access to university provision, including safe spaces on campus, access to learning materials and equipment, the ability to make friends and develop relationships, as well as the obvious and significant financial impact.
The pandemic showed us a lot of inequalities in access to university provision, including safe spaces on campus, access to learning materials and equipment, the ability to make friends and develop relationships, as well as the obvious and significant financial impact.
We now have an acute cost of living crisis, which calls for placing an environment for support at the heart of what we do. Our focus must be on creating a university support space where individuals can thrive. At UWS we are focusing on connectedness and belonging; a new student hub was launched in September 2022 and has been instrumental in providing support across the university. Since 2013 I have also worked on a model based on early intervention and transitional support where we provide proactive, anticipatory student support for the point before students are struggling, which is vital in my view.
Post-Covid Universities are competing with different factors in students' lives. I've noticed there are many more pinch points in the student journey than there were pre-Covid. Commuting costs more, the timetable can impact students' ability to undertake paid work, and many paid working opportunities are quite lucrative for our students, making it very difficult for them to place their studies above earning some money and keeping afloat. Many students also care for children or dependents, so designing for inclusivity is a huge challenge when we face all of these external constraints that are out of our control.
The direction we take on this comes in four parts. Firstly it's about understanding our student body and the circumstances of our cohorts as well as understanding students as individuals. Then it’s understanding the student journey and how that relates to the institution as a whole. We also have to focus on using technology as an enabler rather than a driver in the curriculum, making the curriculum more accessible and focused on wellbeing. Finally, it’s taking forward work on immersive scheduling, which will help us achieve the balance for timetabling in-person activities.
I’ve been developing the Early Intervention and Transitional support model for several years, starting when I worked at Bolton. I wanted to understand the barriers to studying, particularly during the first year. Liz Thomas’s work underpins a lot of this, and it is based on six critical factors that allow us to understand the support needs of students in a proactive way. There is scope for developing it in the future across the whole student journey, but for now, the focus is on the first-year transition. So we have the importance of welcome and induction, student diagnostics, social engineering and academic student support, the actions we put in place to support these students to act on advice, providing the right academic and study skills support, and peer support for belonging and connectedness.
The Scottish Higher Education (HE) sector is progressive in this area, and I have been impressed by this, especially when tackling gender-based violence. The Scottish government has its Equally Safe strategy and a tool kit for HE institutions that can be used to ensure universities embrace sector-wide approaches to getting it right. UWS has been involved in some amazing initiatives across Glasgow for gender-based violence (GBV), including participating in the Fearless Glasgow partnership, taking part in the sixteen days of activism around GBV, and working with Women's Aid too. We’ve rolled out a Report and Support tool with Fearless Glasgow, which was also rolled out in other institutions in the greater Glasgow area.
Co-creation, in all of its forms. We need to talk to students and with students about inclusion, it's non-negotiable. To do that, we must understand lived experiences and trauma, adopting trauma-informed approaches. We need to understand help-seeking behaviour, which becomes essential in recognising student experience needs. I'd encourage students to be part of an inclusive dialogue about their lived experiences as part of their learning; for me, the best way I've found to do that is through co-creation. We should not be speaking at students or about them, we should be talking to and with them.