Student success is about a lot more than academia and curriculum; in fact, it extends to every single facet of the student experience, and if this is not understood, then it is unlikely that student requirements and needs are going to be met. This is why Kirsteen Coupar, Interim Director for Student Success, has spent her time in Higher Education (HE) partaking in initiatives that seek to promote student success in all areas of university, from academia to engagement.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews speaks to Kirsteen about her extensive journey through varying roles in HE, and how she has used her knowledge base to advocate for student success for all.
I am responsible for the Centre for Students and Wellbeing which includes counselling, disability, the student hub, chaplaincy, accommodation, student engagement and retention and safeguarding.
The other part of my remit is the Centre for Learning and Teaching Excellence which includes library and learning resources, timetabling, academic practice, curriculum development, career success, student learning and achievement and foundation year programmes. It’s a very broad remit.
The first 15 years of my career were in the voluntary sector working with children with disabilities and sensory loss. Part of this was developing national courses and exams in communicating with deaf-blind people.
My first experience in HE was in New Zealand at the University of Waikato as a disability awareness manager, teaching academics how to be more inclusive. In the UK I worked at the University of Greenwich as an equality and diversity manager and at several other institutions before my current role. I particularly like working at widening participation universities because it’s a passion of mine.
The thing I’m most proud of is setting up support for care leavers. I set up a package of support including bursaries and specific support with independent living including budgeting and bills. We started off with five students who declared themselves as care leavers and over a couple of years had one hundred and fifty because the support was so effective. I also looked into events for Black History Month, religious festivals, and supporting lessening gaps in attainment.
What’s interesting with Greenwich is that it has three separate campuses and it was my first time at a multicampus university, so it was about finding parity between these campuses in terms of support. We also had a lot of work to do with the Islamic society to build trust in the university and support them. So it strengthened my understanding of how important faith support is as well as pastoral support.
I particularly like working at widening participation universities because it's a passion of mine.
In terms of student success, the main thing is supporting the student voice rather than deciding what students need. We don’t fully understand, especially with 18-21s, so we need to consult with them. Engagement and retention is about creating a sense of belonging to help them complete their studies.
It’s difficult because different types of students have different availability to become more involved in university. For instance, mature students are less likely to have time for societies and events as they may have jobs or a family, so it’s always a challenge. We also have three campuses at BNU and none of them have green spaces, so we can’t do big welcome events. We do, however, create opportunities for students to engage with one another, which we know is key to that sense of belonging.
We also ensure we have transition support, especially for students from widening participation backgrounds. We plan activities to support students coming into first year, but it’s something we have to continue to work at by always listening and taking action.
We’re piloting an initiative next summer with two components; one is using the Conley Readiness Index which is a 30-minute questionnaire done online which measures cognitive strategies, content knowledge, learning skills and techniques and transition knowledge and skills.
Students get a score in each area and are told where they need to do some more development. We will then set up sessions in each area so students can join to develop those skills. We’re pairing this with a peer mentoring service, both in terms of university life and academia. This is to help students make those connections and networks, so that when they are struggling they can use these resources.
Safeguarding is at the forefront of what we do. We recently completed a safeguarding audit, because I wasn’t convinced our processes were robust enough to safeguard students. We plan to implement Report and Support, training for staff, teaching consent, keeping yourself safe, and how to report and receive support.
Understand the importance of internal and external networks — when you nurture relationships you remove barriers to getting things done.
At the moment, my current manager Senior PVC Rachel Cragg, who has developed a national curriculum for policing and set up a professional body for the police service in about eighteen months. She’s so student focused and is also a supportive manager; she’s one of the reasons I took this role.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham; it ignited my passion for equality and justice — and drove me to work in the voluntary sector because I wanted to ensure people were treated fairly.