The Interview UK
Oxford University
Co-Director for Student Welfare and Support Services

Katherine Noren

As universities strive to create environments that embrace diversity and empower all students, the importance of promoting inclusion and accessibility cannot be overstated. This is a challenge for any institution, but to achieve it across 43 colleges is another issue entirely. This is the scale of the task facing Katherine Noren, Co-Director for Student Welfare and Support Services at the University of Oxford, who is leading the charge to establish an inclusive culture at the heart of one of the world’s leading learning institutions. 

Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Katherine to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing higher education today, from the challenge of cultivating a safe and inclusive campus to the need to promote inclusion and accessibility to allow students of all backgrounds to excel.

Katherine's Journey

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

I’m Co-Director for Student Welfare and Support Service at Oxford University. I’ve been working for the department for about 13 years, and my role has changed several times during that time. Oxford is one of the oldest educational institutions in the world, and it’s a very special place to work. It has a unique collegiate structure which makes you feel like part of something really exciting. 

Luke: You mentioned Oxford’s collegiate system. How does your role operate across that?

The central university welfare and support system has existed for more than 25 years, but many essential welfare support services are devolved to colleges. At Oxford, there are 43 colleges and permanent private halls which function as mini academic communities with their own excellent support networks. Our task in the central welfare department is to deliver complementary support services, and to work in partnership with college welfare teams to ensure a joined up approach and cohesive welfare support offering for the entire institution.  Our support offering is always evolving, as is the way we work within the institution. For example, last year Oxford launched a new framework for supporting student mental health to help students and staff understand the different layers of support and how they intersect. The Student Welfare and Support Services Co-Directorship is also a new configuration within the wider department comprising disability support, counselling services, and sexual harassment and violence support. Its purpose is to make sure that, internally, we are working in a cohesive and coordinated way. 

Luke: Safety is a key concern for many students. What measures have been put in place to prevent harassment and foster a safe environment? 

It’s an area of huge importance and one we take very seriously at Oxford. There’s been a lot of change across the sector, and we’re expecting to hear announcements soon from the Office for Students about new regulations and registration requirements in this space. Our department delivers a comprehensive programme of work in conjunction with other institutional partners, and our goal is to create a positive culture that promotes student safety and wellbeing, where no individual has to experience harassment of any kind. We want to help students and staff understand what they can do to help create safe communities. This includes thinking about how we prevent harassment but also how we respond to it. We will achieve this by articulating clear values, explaining which behaviours aren’t acceptable, and providing effective procedures for responding to incidents. It’s also crucial to give people space to talk about difficult issues and show them how to discuss points of difference in a respectful way. Everyone has a part to play. But we also work hard to instill confidence that senior leadership are listening and taking issues seriously. Culture is at the heart of our approach, both at an institutional and individual level, and we need to treat students as partners in this process. 

Luke: Students at Oxford have demanding academic schedules.  How do you ensure they keep engaged with EDI issues? 

We take a multidimensional approach. Student consultation, voice, and co-production provide opportunities for engagement in different ways. We collaborate closely through student forums, student representatives, and the Student’s Union to identify key issues which are emerging in our communities. Student internships are also a fabulous way to provide opportunities for meaningful engagement and for students to shape institutional responses, and this summer the University will be offering an opportunity for a team of student interns to undertake research on the disabled student experience and feed into the conversation on inclusive practices. On a day-to-day level, it’s also about subtle, clear and consistent messaging that promotes a culture where EDI values are inherent in everything we do.

Luke: What’s the most effective way of getting people open to new ideas and approaches?

Simply put, it’s about talking and listening. Whether it’s a small operational change or a major shift in institutional policy or strategy, you need to have a meaningful dialogue with your stakeholders. That includes your students; it’s crucial to know who they really are and what matters to them. Take time to understand how others perceive problems and try to find common ground. Engage in genuine co-production so you can arrive at solutions together; there is no quick fix for anything, but creating a culture of continuous and iterative improvement can drive positive change. Clear communication is key if you want to bring people with you, and be prepared to test ideas and respond to feedback. 

Luke: How do you ensure that your key messages get across to all students?

There’s ongoing discussion across the sector about whether some types of training (like consent training) should be mandatory, but it’s also important to consider carefully how you present things to students and to the staff working with them: engagement with our online consent training has increased year-on-year because we’ve been raising awareness of our provision and keeping the conversation going, demonstrating the value and importance of developing a shared understanding of what consent culture looks like and why it is helpful to the whole community. We’ve also been recruiting students for our peer-led training scheme to deliver workshops on consent and bystander intervention, thinking about how we deliver messages and who they come from to ensure maximum reach and impact. 

Luke: What’s your approach to fostering a sense of inclusion for students from all walks of life?

We aim to embed the principles of equality, diversity, and inclusion into everything we do. It needs to be a thread that runs through everything. That not only involves getting buy-in from the leadership but also people on the ground. The University is currently developing a new EDI strategy and in Student Welfare and Support Services we are proactively evaluating the accessibility of our services for the diverse range of people who come to us. We’ve had a lot of success removing barriers to access for disabled students, but it’s not just about student welfare: all stakeholders need to view inclusion as integral to everything we do.

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

When you encounter the most difficult and challenging problem, something that feels completely insurmountable, try to reframe it as a golden learning opportunity. There will always be something you can reflect on that will help you tackle the next challenge and give you the confidence to push on through when you’re most out of your comfort zone.

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