The Interview UK
Queen's University Belfast
Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students

Judith Williams

In an era where universities strive to cultivate environments conducive to student success, the role of proactive leadership and inclusive practices is paramount. Few understand this better than Judith Williams, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students at Queen’s University Belfast.

Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Judith to discuss topics ranging from the importance of creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for students from diverse backgrounds to strategies for ensuring students and staff stay invested in university initiatives. 

Judith's Journey

Luke: Let’s start with a brief introduction to you and your institution.

I’m the Pro Vice-Chancellor at Queen’s University, Belfast. Queen’s is an anchor institution within Northern Ireland with around 25,000 students and 5,000 staff. We’re a research-intensive institution that prides itself on excellent teaching and student experience.

Luke: What drew you to pursue a career in Student Success?

My outlook is about how I can support and enable students to fulfil their potential. I’m a professor who specialises in academic enhancement, so throughout my career, I’ve been very mindful about helping people understand their strengths and weaknesses so they can maximise their outputs. I started off doing that for academics, but I reached a stage of my career where I wanted to do the same for students. That’s what led me to my current role.

Luke: What are the most important things to get right when creating a safe and welcoming environment for students?

For me, the most crucial thing is working with our students to co-create solutions. Our students know their situation better than anyone else, so we need to listen to them and give them opportunities to effect change. So we’re creating opportunities to co-create solutions – their time is valuable, so we make sure they’re paid for that work. Our student body is increasingly diverse, and student co-creation is crucial for creating innovative solutions for diverse cohorts.

Luke: How do you create a sense of inclusion and belonging for students from all walks of life?

My philosophy is “listen to understand.” I use my coaching style and techniques to really engage with students and assure them that their voices are being heard and their concerns are being taken seriously. I’ve changed our approach so that it becomes more of a facilitated conversation, bringing together academics and students so they feel like they are being listened to. Every month, we hold a free tea and bun session in the library, and we usually have five or six hundred students who turn up. It gives students the opportunity to have a chat – even just asking “How are you?” can make a real difference. But the most important question we ask is “What are we doing that you would like to see more of?” It helps students offer feedback through a positive lens. We hear contributions from the whole spectrum of our community, from first-years to postgraduates. It’s important that they have an opportunity to talk about the things that matter to them. We also have paid student ambassadors who are integrated across the university – they now sit on our Academic Board, helping to facilitate discussions and roll out initiatives. 

Luke: What’s your approach to getting students engaged with topics beyond the classroom?

I try to consider it from the students’ perspective and ask, “What are the key topics they want to address?” At any one time, I keep it to three key things – that allows us to focus our strategy and resources efficiently. If you keep things streamlined, you can really hone things down and get beyond the surface level. Combining a top-down and bottom-up approach can really make a difference.

Luke: Free speech has become a contentious issue on university campuses. How can we foster an environment which encourages dialogue across difference?

You need to set the culture – as a leader, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. Model how to have those challenging conversations and how to be respectful about other people’s views and experiences. But you also need to hold the people around you to account and make sure they are living up to shared principles. Remind students that it’s okay to disagree, but that needs to be done in a mutually respectful way. 

Luke: How do you keep colleagues open to new ideas and avoid inertia?

It all comes back to strategic alignment between reward recognition and understanding what motivates people to do this work. Here at Queens, we have a lot of fantastic initiatives to facilitate that. For example, we have an SOS bus which comes in on a weekly basis to provide crisis intervention and welfare support. More than 200 volunteers are involved in that, and many of them are members of staff. Our university has a civic agenda at the heart of its approach, so we make sure staff are rewarded and recognised for contributing to our community. We make sure that staff are supported to get involved in any initiative, and that we recognise it as work. We’re also reimagining our progression and promotion model to put more weight on these kinds of initiatives. Finally, you need to create a culture where it’s safe to fail; otherwise, people won’t try new things, and will just stick to the status quo. That helps to create an enhancement mindset which can help to drive positive change.

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

I’ve always loved the idea of “buy one get one free.” If something works well in one setting, see whether you can apply it to others. Sometimes it’s better to do less and do it better rather than trying to do too much.

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Luke James
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