The Interview UK
University of Surrey
Chief Student Officer

Kerry Matthews

Higher Education (HE) is often a transformative time for many. When students feel a sense of belonging within their university community, they can genuinely engage and feel supported throughout their learning journey. Embedding belonging and inclusion in the structure and function of HE unlocks its full potential to transform lives.

Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Kerry Matthews, Chief Student Officer at The University of Surrey, to chat about how to effectively implement student support services and proactively address student needs. 

Kerry's Journey

Max: What drew you to the world of student services and has kept you engaged across your career? 

My career started in investment banking technology. During that time, I worked with universities to recruit their top talent for the bank’s graduate scheme and was an external panellist on the review of the then careers services at The University of Southampton. Through all this, I unexpectedly discovered my love for working with students and support them in shaping their futures. HE also aligns with my personal values around influencing for societal good. My university experience was personally transformative, and I want every student to have equitable access to a positive, transformative experience through HE, regardless of who they are. 

Max: What is most important for building a sense of belonging and inclusion for all students? 

This is one close to my heart. It’s easy to talk about the Student Experience when, in fact, all students have a unique experience. We need to be mindful of maintaining awareness around that – personalisation of experience is critical. To me, a true sense of belonging and inclusion exists when every student can say, “I see myself here”. Imagine the disabled student not needing to ask for reasonable adjustments or the student struggling with the cost of living not needing to ask for financial support. We build a sense of belonging and inclusion when universities strive to preempt the needs of students. 

Max: How do you go about creating an inclusive culture? 

We’re embedding student co-design as a tool to tap into the diversity of the student body. A great example is our student disability panel; they’re advising us on ways to improve the accessibility of our hillside Surrey campus. I toured the campus with a student who uses a wheelchair, and it was an eye-opening experience. There is no one better to guide us on these issues than the students with lived experience; they support us to clearly identify opportunities for meaningful change. We’ve also established a ‘Community Swap Shop’ in partnership with our Student Union to address cost of living challenges. We want student support services to be part of our ethos.  

Max: How do you work to engage such a large student body around these critical topics?

We have an incredible representation structure across our Student Union. All our elected representative roles are filled, which drives engagement across the student body. More recently, we’ve established a student feedback panel of 160 students that reflects the diverse demographics of our student population. New ideas and initiatives are tested through the network of these panel members. We also run termly student voice forums and pulse surveys. All these mechanisms are in place to access the student voice as authentically and broadly as possible. 

Max: What have you found most effective in building engagement with the initiatives you’ve mentioned?

We’re one of the few universities offering paid focus group opportunities – there’s no doubt this boosts engagement. The 160-student feedback panel is paid for their time; we’ve found the quality of their feedback to be a powerful way to drive meaningful change. Another key aspect of building engagement is leveraging data effectively. We’re a data-rich sector, but we don’t tend to use the data available to us to engage with students. For instance, student complaints; they’re a rich source of feedback. There are real opportunities to better use the existing data we have at our disposal to further improve student engagement and inclusivity. 

Max: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received across the course of your career?

That’s an interesting one – I have two. The first is to always look at my role through an institutional lens; this thinking holds me in good stead to do what’s right for the whole student community. The second is that you can’t overestimate how many times you need to repeat a message before it lands. Communicate, communicate, and communicate again – particularly if you’re delivering something new and innovative.

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Max Webber
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