Taking a broader approach to health and well-being in Higher Education (HE) institutions is essential if initiatives are to be inclusive and sustainable over long periods of time. For those working in Student Services, the past few years have brought this to the fore, with departments needing to adapt as efficiently as possible.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews spoke to Katie Laverty, Director of Student Services and Success at Keele University, about the initiatives she has been a part of that encourage community building on and off campus and inclusion in every aspect of student life.
I love working with people. I studied sociology at an undergraduate level; after graduating, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. One of the roles I was offered was working in the Student Services sector at Liverpool John Moores University. I worked there for around a year and a half, then moved to the University of Manchester, University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent, and then finally to Keele.
When you work directly with students, you learn about what they experience first-hand, and you understand the impact their experiences have on them. Even the smallest things make a big difference. It's about remaining approachable and friendly so students can come and talk to us about what they genuinely need. As the director, I work on university-wide policy and processes, and it's so important to remember that there's a person at the end of those policies who needs support and will be directly impacted by the changes we make.
We launched our strategy in 2020 and have achieved a lot in that time, and we’re looking at refreshing it now. We're very lucky to have Professor Pauline Walsh as Pro Vice Chancellor of Health and Well-being because having a senior role championing and leading in this area sets the tone for how important an area this is. We don't just focus on student mental health but on health and well-being across the whole community — both students and staff. As part of the refresh, we are focusing on what we learned during the pandemic and setting out refreshed objectives.
The strategy was broken down into areas: people and communities, positive environment, curriculum and learning, policy and practice, and cultures and behaviours. We developed well-being champions across the university, and they come together to share best practices and ideas. Our OfS-funded Start to Success project was a big part of the campaign, which focused on working with a range of regional partners to support students across the region. We also raise awareness and undertake work in other areas related to well-being, such as providing support for menopause more recently, and our work around drug and alcohol impact accreditation, to give an example.
One of the key things we’ve been developing is our NeverOK campaign which deals with different forms of discrimination within our community. I think it’s important to focus on these issues as a community. There are multiple strands to that campaign, such as sexual violence and misconduct, bullying and harassment and community building. We also want to focus on building a sense of belonging, which is another reason for refreshing the health and well-being strategy.
This has been a really challenging period, and those working in education have had a lot to respond to. There were lots of things we did well during the pandemic, such as keeping in touch with our students and trying to maintain engagement and support. We brought in several new areas during the pandemic that have really come into their own now that we’re back on campus, particularly for inclusion. For example, we realised that those with disabilities could really benefit from some of the digital enhancements we made during that period. We do a thorough well-being survey each year, which found that students with disabilities tend to struggle the most. That is why we focus more on incorporating inclusion into the way we operate right from the beginning rather than adding reasonable adjustments later on.
We do a thorough well-being survey each year, which found that students with disabilities tend to struggle the most. That is why we focus more on incorporating inclusion into the way we operate right from the beginning rather than adding reasonable adjustments later on.
We also brought in a new Residence Life team to build community and belonging who ensure our student activities are inclusive. This is led alongside the Student Union and includes pieces on alcohol-free activities, for example. We also brought in a student assistance program which enhances our current services, including a 24/7 helpline which is confidential and offers counselling as well as family, financial support and more.
Take opportunities when they come. I didn’t get into this role on purpose, but I’ve had really supportive managers and colleagues who have always encouraged me to get involved in new things. I’d also say it’s essential to support your colleagues because this work can get challenging at times.
I’ve worked with a lot of really strong female leaders. Learning from them has been amazing, both in HE and EDI. There are a lot of difficult conversations to have, and watching them tackle hard topics has been so important.
It has nothing to do with my role, but my favourite book is The Hobbit. I read for escapism — I’m a busy parent, and I work, so I do things in snippets. That’s why I love podcasts too, particularly listening to successful people and how they have overcome challenges. Think Productive has also been instrumental for me in getting snippets of information quickly and enhancing productivity.