The Interview UK
University of Southampton
Associate Director of Widening Participation and Social Mobility

Florence Harvey

Access to higher education can open the gateway to opportunities; yet far too many have found themselves locked out. In the pursuit of a more equitable society, educational institutions have a responsibility to widen access and eliminate and reduce barriers which some students might still experience. This understanding is central to the work done by Florence Harvey, Associate Director of Widening Participation and Social Mobility at the University of Southampton. 

In today’s edition of The Interview, Florence sat down with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss topics ranging from strategies for fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging to the importance of collaboration between staff and students.

Florence’s Journey

Max: Let’s begin with a brief introduction to your role and institution.

I’m the Associate Director of Widening Participation and Social Mobility at the University of Southampton. Our goal is to make the university more accessible to all students. As part of that, we’re focused on widening access, from offering tutoring sessions to students in schools and colleges to running residential programs to allow prospective students to visit campus. Our work is focused on two main areas: putting in place interventions that offer new opportunities for students, and identifying and ideally eliminating barriers that students experience during their studies. We strongly believe that recruiting a more diverse range of students makes the university stronger. Those experiences that students bring into the university and ultimately out into the world are more representative of the society we live in. We can only be a great institution if we reflect the community we are a part of and create a fairer future for all students.

Max: How does your role fit in with the wider student services framework at your university?

We work across the whole institution, with a dedicated team of 45 people. We’re based within student experience, and our main focus is making sure students have an equitable experience. But we also work with our recruitment teams, academic colleagues, and accommodation and funding teams. The day-to-day experience of students spans all parts of the institution, so our work needs to cover all aspects of the student life cycle. We’re also part of the Southern Universities Network, so we collaborate with a number of other institutions in the region on different projects.

Max: What’s your strategy for embedding a sense of inclusion and belonging across the institution?

The most important thing is ensuring that students can be heard. This means creating and facilitating spaces where students can speak out and influence how the University is run. We work closely with the Students’ Union and also run a number of student engagement projects to drive change within our institution. To feel a sense of belonging, students need to feel ownership and advocacy within a space. So we’re trying a few different approaches to help students feel that. First, we have a Student Advisory Board made up of students from underrepresented backgrounds, from students with disabilities and caring responsibilities to those from minoritised ethnicities. We bring them together to share their lived experience and to consult on different projects across the whole university. Second, we make sure to employ students on all of our projects. It’s important that they are compensated for their time and labour, and that co-creation brings greater authenticity to our work. 

Max: Recent guests have talked about the challenge of keeping students engaged in EDI topics. What’s your approach to getting students involved?

We need to recognise that students are looking for different things at different times. We need to be cognizant of the ways students are engaging with us and design our services and structures around that. Our students are very keen to engage on issues like advocacy, inclusion, gender, and race. We’ve recently launched a new Social Mobility Network for students and staff who are the first in their families to go to university, and that’s seen excellent participation. Every year, we’re seeing more and more engagement with our projects, and this year our advisory board had over 100 applicants. If you build trust with students and show them that you value their input, then they will get on board.

Max: Some students are easier to reach than others. How do you make sure your key messages get across to everyone?

As a leader, you need to ask yourself “Is this student hard to reach? Or are we trying to reach them in the wrong way?” And that’s why I think working in partnership with students is so powerful. There are a number of things we can do to make engaging with the university easier. As mentioned, paying students for their work is crucial – we even do it for our school-aged Youth Consultants program. We try to make sure they are treated with the same respect as any staff member. Right now, students are dealing with a lot, especially with the cost of living crisis. They are investing in themselves to come to university, and we need to recognise that their time is precious.

We also need to be really clear about our agenda; students need to know that by engaging in these programs, they will see change. You need to give students the power to make that change themselves. One of our current projects is the Awarding Gap Project, a student-led initiative that aims to close the awarding gap between Black students and white students. As part of that, our student leaders receive full training and are given a budget with full autonomy. They’ve created some great interventions, such as the Black Fresher’s Guide, which introduces Black students to life in Southampton. To get students engaged in these initiatives, be clear about what’s involved, and let them know what’s in it for them!

Max: Safety is a key concern for many students. What are the key things you’ve been trying to improve?

It’s crucial to empower students to understand how they can get support when needed and to follow through really clearly on that. We have a Report and Support tool that allows students to report incidents anonymously and allows us to contact them to help them through the process. You need to be clear about what to do when something goes wrong. But it’s also about how you design those services, making sure they are culturally competent and dismantling barriers to engagement. Make sure you work closely with the student community – as a staff member, you can’t always understand what students are really going through, so you need to always be listening and building trust so students feel able to speak up. 

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Always be open to learning and stay open to change. As a leader, you can’t always know what things are really like for students. So listen to the students who are in this environment every day. That’s the best way to make an institution that works for everybody.

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Max Webber
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