Breaking down the barriers that restrict educational opportunities is a fundamental step towards building a more inclusive and equitable society. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Kieron Broadhead, Senior Executive Director for Students and Infrastructure at the University of Southampton, who has worked tirelessly to widen access and close the awarding gap in higher education.
Kieron sat down with GoodCourse, to discuss topics ranging from the challenge of widening access to the pandemic’s long-term impact on student life.
It’s quite a long title — I’m Senior Executive Director for Students and Infrastructure as well as Deputy Vice President of Operations at the University of Southampton. The shorthand version is that I’m responsible for all aspects of university life outside academics. So my portfolio includes everything from admissions and recruitment to careers and graduation.
It was never my intention to work in a university, and I ended up here through a happy accident. I studied at the University of Hull, and in my second year, I decided to stand for election as a student sabbatical officer. After that, I was offered part-time work setting up a welcome week for incoming students before becoming a student-focused project officer. My role involved working across a large directorate to deliver student support. I realised that a stable support network could make the difference between having a positive or a negative university experience.
We’ve been working hard to bring people together in the academic space. We recently launched a new project around induction based on meeting people and making connections. Our goal was that by the end of the first week, everyone should have connected with five other people, and we set up a range of activities and initiatives to support that. We’ve also been thinking about the extracurricular space and how to encourage people to try things outside their comfort zones. We’ve also introduced new inclusion activities for specific cohorts of students, especially parents and carers. For us, it’s vital that these initiatives are student-focused and student-led. From speaking to our students, we’ve learned that they value the opportunity to spend time with each other, especially outside the classroom — in the aftermath of the pandemic, that’s more important than ever.
Many of our third-year students will have spent their first two years doing remote or hybrid learning. So we’ve had to hold a re-induction for students who’ve had their learning disrupted. More than ever, we’re finding students are increasingly comfortable working in the digital space — they’re happy to use technology to communicate, so we’re trying to incorporate digital elements into our curriculum to improve engagement.
Our priority is making sure the team is safe and well. We spend a lot of time defining objectives and ensuring team members understand their contributions. Team dynamics can operate differently when you’re working remotely, so it’s necessary to have conversations about flexibility. We’re also making sure our teams have the space and time to dedicate to student engagement work. Students’ needs and expectations have changed since the pandemic, so we need to make interventions around things that will make a real difference.
Here at Southampton, we’re very proud of the work we’re doing around widening participation and social mobility. My team has been working closely with the Office of Students to set up a special interest group around access and participation. The Equality of Opportunity Register is key, as it shapes all our work around marginalised communities. We’re working hard on a lot of new projects: partnering with local schools to widen access, supporting over 1500 local learners, and working with a student panel to break down barriers for marginalised students. The cost of living crisis has hit many of our students hard, so we’ve invested over a million pounds in additional hardship funding. Finally, we’re collaborating with our Black student panel to close the awarding gap: it’s a long-term challenge, but we’re firmly committed to it.
At Southampton, we’re lucky to have an active and engaged student population. We work in close partnership with the Students Union and elected student representatives to boost engagement. We’re finding our students are passionate about the sustainability agenda and issues related to gender, race, and ethnicity. But where we’re seeing less engagement is in structured social activities, especially in the traditional university drinking culture. More and more students are identifying as alcohol-free, so we need to make sure there are activities available that reflect that demand.
Our Student’s Union has taken an active lead on student safety. They have developed a campaign called “Southampton Says Enough” which has brought together the university, the police, and the city council to protect student safety at night. We have a dedicated well-being team on our campus 24-7: if a student needs help at 3 am on Christmas Day, they can walk in and get it. In terms of harassment, we’ve partnered with two local charities, and we’ve appointed a dedicated wellbeing advisor. We’ve also adopted a new reporting system that allows students to report incidents anonymously. Overall, the best thing we can do to create a safe community is to build a culture of trust.
Bring them in and have a conversation. When they spot a problem, universities are too quick to try and impose a solution on students. But it’s much more effective to ask students what they need: then you can solve the problem together.