The Interview UK
Solent University
Pro Vice-Chancellor for Students and Governance

Jim Irving

As universities adopt a holistic approach to student support, they are increasingly recognising the importance of a proactive approach rooted in early intervention. It’s the responsibility of universities to communicate to students what resources are available and how they can be accessed – so that well-being issues can be addressed before they get out of control. 

In today’s conversation, Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, met with Jim Irving, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Students and Governance at Solent University, Southampton, to discuss everything from his university’s collaborative efforts to promote student safety to the challenges faced by students during the cost of living crisis. 

Jim's Journey

Max: It’s been a while since you were last featured on The Interview. What’s the most exciting initiative you’ve been involved with since then?

Since the last time we spoke, the University has been awarded gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). With gold awards in Student Experience and Student Outcomes, we’re delighted to be part of a small group of universities that have achieved the triple gold. It was exciting to be part of the team which brought together that TEF submission. That award is an endorsement of our teaching and learning philosophy. We believe in a real-world approach, working with our students to ensure they receive an education which meets their needs and supports them to achieve their goals. Seeing that recognised has been a cause for celebration. 

Max: What was the biggest factor in your institution being awarded the TEF Gold Award?

The TEF is focused primarily on teaching and learning. The Gold Award cited our outstanding approach to teaching, feedback, and assessment practices. We have real-world course content based on what students are going to experience in practice, and we try to tailor assessments around that. In addition, over the last few years we’ve invested heavily in our teaching and learning resources: for example, this summer we opened a new virtual production stage for our media production students. Our health students have a brand-new Human Health lab and our Warsash Maritime School provides world-leading training for students embarking on careers in the seafaring industries. That even includes a simulator suite which trains you to pilot a ship – it’s so realistic, it feels like you are really in the waves. Some people even leave feeling seasick!

Max: What are the most pressing issues facing the students at Solent University?

We’ve come across a couple of key challenges. Most immediate is the cost of living, which affects all our students on a day-to-day basis. A huge proportion of our students are working alongside their studies, and we work to support them through that. The other key challenge is around mental health. Over the pandemic, many students began to encounter greater stress. But at the same time, there have also been significant budget cuts for services in the community, and it can be difficult to find help. So we’ve taken a three-pronged approach.

In the short term, we are providing cost-of-living support through bursaries, and initiatives such as a food pantry, and an energy grant. In the medium term, we are developing the employability of our students; for example, our Solent Creatives program helps students find paid freelance work in digital and creative industries to help them build their networks and portfolios. We’re also working with an agency called Grit to support students of colour in their career development. Finally, in the longer term, we are trying to change the mindset around student support. We want to be proactive rather than reactive. So we’ve developed new Resilience Workshops and are working closely with our Therapy and Mental Health team to help develop proactive social prescribing interventions. In the sector, there’s a lot of debate around topics like free speech, but that’s not really an issue I see our students facing on a daily basis. Instead, we need to spend more time on those real-world issues.

Max: The pandemic changed the way the sector thinks about student safety. What’s your main focus when it comes to creating a safe environment?

We work very closely with the city and the community to make our university safer. We’ve partnered with a local organisation called Go Southampton to promote an initiative about safe routes home from the night-time economy. Southampton benefits from having a lot of parks and green space, but at night that can sometimes feel unsafe. So having lit routes home for students is important. Go Southampton have done a great job, and have even achieved Purple Flag Status to reflect safety in the night-time economy. We also work with an organisation called Yellow Door to provide training and support for students on the issue of sexual violence and harassment, helping them to understand what support services are available. Our Students’ Union also has an excellent Safe Taxi Scheme which helps students return home safely late at night.

Max: Student engagement is a key concern across the sector. What’s your approach to getting students involved?

Our Students’ Union plays a key role. They are currently refreshing their approach to student engagement, and they are very active in getting out there and talking to students face-to-face about the issues they are facing and how the university can support them. As part of our academic governance structure, we have a Student Board which allows us to bring staff members and student representatives together to discuss strategy. I also meet with our Student Union officers on a weekly basis. To reach everyone, we run different programs targeted at different cohorts. For example, we have a lot of commuting students, so we cater certain programs to focus on the particular issues they face. We also do the same for students with caring responsibilities. It’s crucial to meet students where they are so you can deliver support that’s meaningful for them. 

Max: Students have many competing demands on their attention. How do you ensure that students are aware of all the support available?

You need to get in early. We’ve done some reflection on our induction process, and we’re rethinking the volume of information we are sharing at the start. Those first weeks can be a little overwhelming, so we’re trying to break down that information a little bit more. We’ve focused on early signposting of support services, and our course leads have been fantastic in flagging areas where communication can be improved. Our Therapy and Mental Health team is key; there is no waiting list for an initial appointment, and you can get a same-day appointment at the Student Hub.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The world is going to change around you, so you need to make sure you have the skills to adapt. In higher education, we are practitioners of change, but we’re also in an unstable sector. So the best thing we can do is support colleagues to develop agility and resilience. 

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Max Webber
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