Navigating the challenges of a post-pandemic world has risen to the top of student welfare agendas across the Higher Education sector. This has also promoted the fusion of student wellbeing, inclusivity and access issues.
As Chair of AMOSSHE, and Dean of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and Director of Student Services at the University of Stirling, Jill Stevenson has a uniquely broad view of how the pandemic has affected students from all backgrounds.
GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield chatted with Jill to learn more about her eclectic experience in the EDI sector, and the importance of the cross-organisational work she does chairing the non-profit student services organisation AMOSSHE.
I’ve been interested in social inclusion and justice since I was at university. When I graduated, I worked in the social housing sector for Scottish Homes, where my interest was piqued. I then moved on to sportscotland and became the ethics manager, where I was involved in equality and accessibility and learnt a lot about sports ethics more generally – for example, I also gained some grounding in child protection and human rights issues.
My career has been quite eclectic since then. I’ve been working in the Higher Education space for 14 years now, initially in equality and governance, but more recently also in student support and culture change – two sectors that have increasingly merged. Halfway through my work at universities, I was seconded to the Commonwealth Games for a year, as accessibility and inclusion manager.
We’re more aware of wellbeing issues now - the critical importance of supporting staff, and responding to complex student needs.
Student bodies are diverse, so supporting students effectively requires thinking about the heterogeneity of the student population. Everything we do to support students needs to recognise the intersectionality of lived experience. When we develop student support programmes, we have to ensure issues relating to mature students, international students, LGBTQ+ students, ethnic minority students, and so on, are addressed.
Covid raised EDI, culture change and student support to the top of the agenda for universities. We’re more aware of wellbeing issues now – the critical importance of supporting staff, and responding to complex student needs.
I saw it as an opportunity to engage in cross-sector collaboration and develop collaborative solutions to common challenges. It got me away from my day job and introduced me to fresh ideas, so it has been great for my own development. I played a role in developing the 5 year strategic plan for AMOSSHE, which is based on developing and empowering our members whilst influencing others in the sector to ensure student services are elevated to the top of the agenda.
We are a movement of student services leaders and it’s essential we get together to share information and ideas. I sought to become chair because I’d like to play a leading role in the implementation and rollout of that strategy in the next 5 years. It’s been incredibly rewarding – I learn something new every time we meet.
We’re coming out of a pandemic, and we need to come back stronger. Things have changed, we’re now doing more online work, so the needs of our students and the way we respond is naturally different. There have been benefits, as we’re more agile, but undoubtedly there are more challenges around mental health and wellbeing. This requires working with others that have a key remit and responsibility for student health and wellbeing, like the NHS.
Another major trend is the increasing diversity of our cohorts. We are lucky to teach and work with students with hugely diverse backgrounds and cultures – it presents both opportunities and challenges.
There are so many factors to consider. People don’t just align with a single identity marker, you have to consider all the intersections of that person’s identity that make them the unique person they are. We are always trying to build respect and tolerance of difference; a key channel to achieving this is through our student welcome and induction programs that all universities will have. We’re trying to move towards programs that facilitate open discussion. It’s notoriously difficult to get a significant mass of students engaged with extra-curricular activities, so the more we build these issues into the spaces and frontiers where students are actually engaged – such as welcome and the curriculum – the better.
Conversations on identity can become polarised and even quite toxic, for example some of the recent conflicts between protecting certain human rights and safeguarding freedom of speech. For me, the question is how we enable safe and brave conversations on campus, and build them into core curricular programs. We don’t want conversations about EDI to be seen as an add-on – because what we do in this space is fundamental to improving society.
All transition points are important, and there’s no doubt that entry into university is critical. It’s where we are able to set the expectations for students and illustrate how we will support them in turn. Freshers are a captive audience, so setting out a culture where EDI, inclusion and respect are paramount is important.
There are challenges with engagement – I’m always thinking, how do we build connections early on with the student? How do we ensure students have the requisite personal and academic skills to deal with university life? This is even more so the case with students whose school experience has been impacted by the pandemic. I want every student to have a rich, fulfilling experience of university life, beyond just their academic engagement.
You have to ‘own’ your career advancement – no one will do that for you. Be honest about the gaps in your experience and knowledge, and try to address these gaps and develop your own pathway and skills as best you can. Continue to be curious and read a lot, as it’s a fast-moving and complex area. It can be overwhelming to keep up with debates, but if you want to pursue an EDI career you have to remain open-minded and curious.
The people around me at AMOSSHE are so intelligent and knowledgeable. There are so many fantastic leaders across the sector and I’ve learned so much from them. Vice Chancellors who are open and authentic about their EDI journey, and demonstrate what it means in practice to them are really important. Janet Beer and Cara Aitchison are two really impressive examples of authentic leadership.
There are so many books, but I’m currently reading The Promises Of Giants by John Amaechi. I think he’s a great leader in the EDI space and everybody would benefit from engaging with him.