Dealing with student experience is as much about looking at what hasn’t gone right as it is about acknowledging what has. Learning from student feedback is one of the most important aspects of this.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews spoke to Iain Rowan, Academic Registrar at the University of Sunderland, about the importance of acknowledging a diverse campus and ensuring we are listening to and hearing multiple voices when taking feedback and improving.
I've been in Sunderland my whole career. I started off as a very junior member of staff in our Quality Support Team, and then I became Head of Admissions for a couple of years before taking a new role as Head of the Student Office encompassing student records, admissions, financial counselling and financial support for students alongside complaints and appeals. From there, I moved through timetabling, statutory reporting, and student systems. I became Assistant Director and then became Deputy Academic Registrar before becoming Registrar nearly five years ago.
It was a period of considerable change and very little notice, so we iterated through several sets of emergency regulations for different periods of lockdown. As we started to come out of the pandemic, we decided that we would revert to a standard set of regulations because the time for emergency regulation was over.
We then wanted to see if we'd learnt any lessons from how we'd operated for two years that we could bring into our new regulations. We looked at things, for example, like extensions where we moved to be more comparable with other UK HEIs, and be more generous than we were before.
It addresses students having some sense of community before they arrive at university, which helps break down some barriers. We were conscious that the students would come to us with a different educational experience from what we were used to. We can generally look back as an institution on the pandemic period and feel a sense of satisfaction and pride at how we handled it. On our NSS scores during the pandemic, in particular, the question “Do you feel supported by your institution?” had a response that was really pleasing to us, and positioned the university well against the sector.
The other thing that we did, not simply because of the pandemic, was review our personal tutor system and relaunch it with a lot of emphasis on the importance of personal tutors. I think that's really important when picking up post-pandemic issues — to get in there quickly if a student is struggling.
I've learnt a huge amount from past colleagues, and it's created a real community of practice around student casework; it really brought together a lot of very different experiences. For example, when you're working with complaints and appeals, you can't help but see where it goes wrong as well as where it has gone right.
Really what students are telling us is often only the tip of the iceberg when you're looking at formal complaints. For example, you have those students who are motivated enough to take a formal complaint and write it out and speak to people about it, but below that there are students who are dissatisfied yet not quite motivated enough to do more about it. So you need to be conscious that a complaint might be a one-off or it might be a symptom that there's something systemic underneath that we need to address.
This is something we put in the centre of what we do. We have a very diverse student body in many ways, by which I mean geographically and ethnically, both on campus and across the range of our centres, in the Caribbean, in Malaysia and Africa and other parts of the world. But we also have a diverse student body in terms of age; we've got a lot of mature students. And we have a diverse body in terms of widening participation too, so it's always in our minds that we must be careful not to talk about the singular student voice, but about our student voices, because the 18-year-olds from a school in Sunderland, the 45-year-old who's moved here to do a teacher training, the international student who's coming to a master's — they're all different, with varying expectations and needs.
So we recognise that, and everything we do is with that in mind. For example, through our student representation system, we ensure we listen to what our students tell us and then check back with them that we’ve understood. We have quite a complicated network of student representatives at the course level, and then what we call Student Voice Reps, which come in at a school level in a faculty who work both institutionally and locally.
We work through every issue that comes across our desks and collaborate across the university on the evolution of policy at all times.
I work very closely with colleagues across the university on EDI issues, and we've got a very strong, very supportive and excellent in-practise team. We work through every issue that comes across our desks and collaborate across the university on the evolution of policy at all times. Recently, we've reviewed our policy about transgender students and staff and implemented a network that includes our BAME staff network, LGBTQI+, parents, carers, staff with disabilities, and veterans. So, we have whole groups that are incredibly supportive, all coordinated by the EDI team.