At the heart of fostering a sense of inclusivity and belonging on a university campus is remaining in touch with the lived and real experiences of its students, including seeing what is going on in the world around them and how this might affect their experience.
GoodCourse Universities Lead Kitty Hadaway sat down with James Hutchinson, Director of Education Services and Student Experience at the University of Exeter, to discuss his department’s forward-thinking approaches and initiatives to issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis, and the steps they have taken to help students in these matters.
As Director of Education Services and Student Experience, I’m responsible for all of those front-facing services that support the education experience — this encompasses everything from libraries to student well-being to graduation; it’s very rich and varied but it’s all tied into supporting the students.
I’ve been in Higher Education (HE) for more than twenty years now, starting as a sabbatical officer in my Students’ Union, where the remit was education-focused. This commenced a career in Students’ Unions, which made up the first twelve years of my career. I was Chief Executive at Goldsmiths Students’ Union before coming to Exeter as Chief Executive of the Students’ Guild. From there, I moved into the faculty space as Director of College Operations for our business school, working closely with academic colleagues. I then moved into running an institutional change programme which brought me back to student experience as a means of bringing all of that together.
In 2017 when I was working in the business school, we were really looking at how to get the most out of professional services and develop clear career pathways. The project was about bringing professional services into one team but maintaining local delivery until we could establish clear professions that connected all colleagues into one unit. That was the basis for developing the services through to today.
Coming out of Covid, a lot of problems that we already had have been exacerbated, which has given us a sharper view of the importance of belonging and inclusion. We’ve been looking at it through the lens of the entire student journey, from before students arrive here to supporting academic and broader engagement. We established a MOOC programme for students to use pre-arrival, which is an induction into the academic programme and beyond. We also looked into space issues around campus and physical connections, diversifying our communities and making spaces for students to come together without creating barriers to engagement.
We knew we had to be more radical than putting a strategy together and instead focus on students as individuals, looking at challenges and obstacles that students face and creating ways for students to discover connections and opportunities to connect on multiple levels.
Our most recent initiative to bring this together was working with the student officers to build a student experience framework. We knew we had to be more radical than putting a strategy together and instead focus on students as individuals, looking at challenges and obstacles that students face and creating ways for students to discover connections and opportunities to connect on multiple levels. That is why the framework is so crucial; it gives us a chance to evaluate what we have done and gain insight into the real student experience.
Time is a challenge for students, so we know that our focus on the time they spend has to be really purposeful. Some traditional models around engagement, such as course rep meetings, have become more evolved and needed innovation in order to make engagement feel more purposeful and have a greater impact, to justify the time it takes against its impact on engagement.
When we saw that this would become such a vital issue to tackle, we came up with a cost-of-living task force that came in during September. Through this, we placed a further £1 million into our Success for All fund which is available to all students for funding support on all levels. We also increased PhD stipends and made a £100 winter payment to all undergraduate students with household incomes under £30,000. In response to our Students’ Guild’s we have introduced £2 meals so all students can have a warm meal on campus, and created more consistently warm spaces on campus too. We recognise that this will be a sustained challenge for us, so supporting students will be long-term, which we need to build into academic policy.
There are so many opportunities — try to see the university from different perspectives. Try to work across different departments and see how your actions impact other departments. I’d also say don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone because you can always be surprised.
Joe Baden, who I worked with at Goldsmiths. He is the director of the Open Book project, and he has made a massive impact on widening access in universities and has changed many lives in doing so.
I love Matthew Syed and the way he thinks, and I’d advocate for his podcast, Sideways Thinking, as well as his books. But Rebel Ideas and Black Box Thinking are great for challenging the way you think and changing your perspective.