Inclusion, equality and engagement should be at the forefront of the role of student services in today’s Higher Education (HE) climate, and for Graham Nicholson and Keith Mackle, Director and Assistant Director of Student Services at the University of Dundee, this is something that they are continuously improving through listening to student voices.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews sat down with Graham and Keith to discuss some of the incredible initiatives that have helped bring the University of Dundee to the top of the rankings for student experience in the UK.
Graham: I did a postgrad in careers guidance and then went on to university careers guidance and ended up in careers services. Then I became interested in wider support services and got into that while working at another university. I then came here and took on this role, which covers a wide range of issues from mental health services to sports facilities.
Keith: I ran our Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning department then I moved to registry before coming to student services, but I've always had a background in guidance, advice and wider participation activities as well as access and inclusive practice.
Graham: We work in collaboration with our students association, so all of the projects we do are informed by the student body. It's a real partnership that contributes hugely to the student experience. We are very visible as a result and have a very upfront enquiry centre which was rated highly and that allows students to find the support that they are looking for. We present all aspects of university life to students from the beginning via our welcome week, welcoming every group of students imaginable, from international students to home-based students who aren't in halls of residence, having them feel included in the community from day one.
Students know we care about them and what happens to them, we want them to feel at home and comfortable and with a sense of belonging.
Keith: Students know we care about them and what happens to them, we want them to feel at home and comfortable and with a sense of belonging. The university is such a size where people all know each other so we maintain connections with all of the academic schools to help students deal with issues that way. Schools also know how to refer students for support. We aim to be a connected community in every way.
Graham: We have a lot of international students so we have a global room which is a huge space in the heart of the campus and we have a lot of events in there for everyone to celebrate the diversity of culture that we have. Engaging disengaged students is always a struggle, so we've started a project called SWITCH which is about bringing in students who aren't engaged. The program aims to engage them in anything from physical activity, student societies, volunteering and anything else. It aims to take the stigma out of projects for the disengaged as well.
Keith: We also get referrals from counselling services, disability services and our mental health nurses for SWITCH — so while students are getting support they will also have something else that engages them in an activity. All of these departments work together, and we also have a cause for concern group where we look out for students that need the most support.
Graham: It’s hard to measure, but our retention figures have improved over the years. I think the main thing is that engagement with student services has risen, as well as engagement in socialising post-pandemic. University is about feeling part of a community and socialising, and things like nightlife are a huge part of student life; we've seen a rise in satisfaction and uptake there. Generally speaking, our outcome figures are positive but it's hard to say if there is a link between initiatives and that result. Building a good student experience I think makes students more likely to remain at the university.
Keith: There is no one thing that promotes retention, it's the whole package of academic support, other support and external services as needed. One of our new initiatives is around recurring and enduring circumstances which is about creating programs for students with ongoing circumstances in their life such as being care-experienced, suffering domestic abuse or being carers, this impacts how they engage with studies and they can fall behind. This system will identify these students and provide them with a support plan including mitigations that they need to level the playing field. We also have a strong safeguarding ground around protecting students and taking positive preventative action against gender-based violence and domestic abuse. It is our job to make students feel safe and protected.
Graham: Have a panoramic view rather than a narrow one; you need to try and see the whole picture of the student journey, listening to student voices to come up with initiatives.
Keith: Be a robust person at the start of your career and know how to look after yourself so that you can support students. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and you need to be able to deal with working in that environment.
Graham: Paul Redmond of Liverpool University. When I worked with him I saw he had that panoramic view and taught me that no matter what your background is in you need to widen your view of student services.
Keith: I would say the frontline workers. The ones who deal with the walk-ins and don't know what or who they are going to get. Being able to deal with that is really impressive and requires a special kind of person.