Higher Education (HE) leaders are increasingly emphasising how important speaking to the diversity of student cohorts is to affecting good outcomes for all. Jonathan Powles, Vice Principal (VP) and Pro Vice Chancellor (PVC) for Learning, Teaching and Students at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), knows this all too well.
Kira Matthews, GoodCourse’s Community Engagement Lead, sat down with Jonathan to discuss his journey into HE, his passion for inclusive learning and why belonging is such an important determinant of success.
I’m VP and PVC for Learning, Teaching and Students at the UWS. UWS is a modern university. We have 5 campuses and partners overseas. We pride ourselves on being the most diverse university in Scotland.
I got a PhD in Music at Oxford and my first academic job was at Liverpool Hope teaching music. I loved enabling young people to build their confidence and skills, setting them on a journey of self-discovery which helps them transform their lives.
I’ve worked at a number of universities in the UK and Australia, but coming to UWS felt like coming home. There’s incredible diversity and a real ambition to be the community’s anchor.
We are not solely providing an educational experience for school-leavers who live on campus. One of our biggest degrees is nursing. Typically, student nurses don’t live in halls of residence — they’re in their 20s and 30s and have children.
Creating that sense of community is less about being on campus and more about making students feel like they belong to a cohort of aspiring professionals with a common purpose.
It’s a widely held belief that online learning isn’t as good as in-person — but it’s a lot better than not doing it at all. Lots of our students juggle many responsibilities, so it’s a flexible solution for them. I’d be reluctant to return to pre-pandemic set-ups, because many diverse students didn’t attend when they had to be on campus.
The typical curriculum university model is predicated on the notion of an 18-year-old male, White middle-class school leaver. What would designing a university experience for a 35-year-old Black woman from an area of social deprivation look like?
We launched a strategic plan in February 2020, which is subtitled, designing for diversity. The average mark increased by 3% and university retention rates went up by 3%. Students told us it was because they didn’t fail if they didn’t come to campus.
What would designing a university experience for a 35-year-old Black woman from an area of social deprivation look like?
Belonging is a central determinant of student success. Students will succeed if they feel they belong to a cohort and that what they’re studying is relevant to their aspirations. If you survey students about themselves and use the data to predict how well they’ll do, the most important thing is having friends. However much time we want to spend on essay writing skills, fundamentally, students will succeed if they feel they belong.
Coming back to campus is less about attending lectures — they’re quite happy to digest a recording in their own time. What students miss is the social side.
One action was changing our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Mostly, they were glorified mailboxes. We invested in a new version, which is like a social media platform. We learned from our student representatives that zoom lectures were not great—you can’t nudge the person next to you and ask, ‘What did they just say?’ In a lecture, you can triangulate your learning with your neighbours. We forgot how important that is. Our VLE enabled those conversations. It’s great that students take control of their learning and do it collaboratively.
Students are why we’re here. Whether you work in the finance department, or you’re an academic, or a VP, if what you bring to work each day is the attitude, ‘We are here for our students’, then you will walk out the door thinking you’ve done something valuable.
Ellie Gomersall. She’s a young transwoman and the outgoing president UWS student union, and the incoming president of the National Union of Students in Scotland. She is the most positive, collaborative student representative I’ve worked with for a long time. I think the world is in good hands when I look at the young people around me.
The Beautiful Risk of Education, by Gert Biesta. He argues powerfully that education is a very human activity. It involves transformation, and that’s slightly uncomfortable. It’s a counterpoint to the idea that education is just equipping students with skills to do jobs.