The Interview USA
University of Wolverhampton
Pro Vice Chancellor for Academic Leadership and Student Experience

Gillian Knight

The landscape of Higher Education has changed significantly in recent years, with both institutions and their students feeling the effects of rising costs. Due to these challenges, Student Experience teams have become even more vital in supporting students, addressing attainment gaps, and ensuring success. 

Gillian Knight, Pro Vice Chancellor for Academic Leadership and Student Experience at the University of Wolverhampton, joined Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss how a flexible curriculum can benefit modern students and meet their changing needs. 

Gillian's Journey

Max: Let's start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution…

I'm Professor Gillian Knight, the new Pro Vice Chancellor for Academic Leadership and Student Experience at the University of Wolverhampton. The University of Wolverhampton is based in the Black Country in the West Midlands and prides itself on being the university of opportunity. We are number one in the UK for teaching first-generation students. My role is part of a new senior leadership team, consisting of Pro Vice Chancellor, Pro Vice Chancellor for Research, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer, and Chief People Officer.  As a university we've recently undergone a transformation process in response to the sector-wide financial challenges, and the new leadership team is centred around helping the university grow in the wake of these complexities.  

Max: What drew you to a career working with students?

I went straight from my PhD into a role at the University of Birmingham as a Cancer Research UK scientist. I was there for ten years, but I started to wonder whether it could support me long-term. I enjoyed supervising PhDs and bringing students into the lab to do lectures, so I decided to switch to a teaching role. I was lucky enough to become a teaching fellow at another institution and loved working with students. It's lovely to watch them enter university, perhaps slightly nervous, support them through their education, and see them go on to great careers due to our work. As I do not get as much time with students now in my current role, I am always looking for ways to work in partnership with our students, and have undertaken numerous co-creation initiatives.   I was the first in my family to go to university, and I wouldn't be where I am now without my university education, so getting to offer that to others keeps me inspired. 

Max: How do you create a sense of belonging for all Wolverhampton students? 

Students nowadays might need to get a part-time job to support themselves, or live at home and commute to campus, so creating a sense of belonging is becoming more challenging. We need to support them through their study and help them balance their external commitments. At Wolverhampton, one way we've chosen to do this is through our curricular framework. We have an inclusive framework, which is focused on developing student belonging and success. We are looking to expand on this framework, to ensure students see the value of their travel when they come to campus, and explore how our students receive academic and personal support through other means, such as asynchronous or virtual delivery. We're also focusing on our induction, looking at an extended welcome period that will enable us to support students over a longer timeframe, thereby presenting them with information in much more manageable amounts and tailored to different parts of their learning journey. That will also enable us to catch up with any international students who may arrive late to the UK, supporting their academic needs and also helping them settle into university life.

Lastly, we're also considering belonging in the broader community since, as the only university in the city of Wolverhampton, we've always been a civic-based institution. We have a lot of links with local colleges that embed a sense of belonging in different ways, so we look at their practices and consolidate them here to support students' transition to university. We're also looking at how we can partner with local industries to offer work placements to our students within the community. So, our approach combines a flexible curriculum, consistent and flexible support, and recognising the university's role in the wider community. 

Max: How do you address attainment gaps, particularly for marginalised groups? 

Again, closing attainment gaps is something we're constantly focusing on because we have a very diverse student body, and many arrive here with different educational backgrounds. While some students can walk into a degree with a suitable knowledge base, others need time and support to adjust to university study. To that end, we're writing a new education strategy highlighting how we transform lives, and focusing on understanding student needs. We've also installed academic coaches across the curriculum, trained to connect with students, find out what they want academically and from a pastoral perspective, and work with them throughout their first year of study. Unlike a personal tutor who may need to balance teaching with tutoring, these coaches are dedicated to just supporting our students, meaning they have more time to treat each student as an individual, working with them to build their confidence and offer them actionable solutions to any issues. That's significantly impacted attainment gaps where students are engaging with it. 

As an institution, our continuation rates could be higher, so we're also making sure to track students' progress and reach out after dips in engagement. We've invested in time and people who ring our students, talk to them, ask what the problem is, and find out how to help. As part of our inclusive curriculum framework we are also providing students flexibility in their assessments, explaining how each type might benefit their learning and skill development. Lastly, we've done a lot of outreach to local schools and colleges to understand challenges before students even arrive at the university. Working to understand and create partnerships with our students has made a clear impact on our continuation rates and attaintment gaps, but we still have more work to do.

Max: How do you create a safe campus at Wolverhampton?

I haven't been in this role for long, so I can't take credit for these initiatives; however we've been doing a lot of work to foster an inclusive curriculum. If students can recognise themselves, their identities, and their experiences in the curriculum and on campus, it bolsters understanding and acceptance. Those changes are part of a case study with Universities UK, and we've seen that that framework has already helped to start tackling aspects such as racial harassment and make Wolverhampton a much safer campus to live and study at.  

Max: What's the best advice you've received during your career? 

Know your institution, know your students, and know your staff. As a leader, you have to grasp student needs, ensure your staff are making an impact and are supported in their work, and evolve at an institutional level so the positive impact you make can continue. In my role, I've always centred collaboration between those three groups, particularly on reaching out to students and getting their input into change initiatives.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Max Webber
Max works closely with people leaders and change-makers in our professional services markets. If you're looking to feature on The Interview, or simply want to learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at max.webber@goodcourse.co
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