The Interview UK
The University of Edinburgh
Academic Registrar

Lisa Dawson

Keeping administrative procedures flexible, dynamic and receptive to feedback is often key to student success. For Lisa Dawson, Academic Registrar at the University of Edinburgh, this means an approach of continuous improvement and refreshing practices to best suit the needs of current students. 

Lisa recently sat down with GoodCourse to discuss her approach to supporting students, with particular focus on her new Student Support model, as well as her journey into Higher Education (HE) and the initiatives she is most proud of. 

GoodCourse: Could you please introduce your current role and institution? 

I’m the Academic Registrar for the University of Edinburgh. We have around 45,000 students from roughly 170 countries and recently ranked 15th in the QS World University Rankings. 

An academic registrar looks at academic governance, compliance, and regulation, as well as how we can support student life. We also evaluate student experience through a range of student voice activities and data. 

Continuous improvement is very important to me, and when improving student services I always engage students to ensure their voice is heard.  I find the best outcomes come from listening and co-creating. 

GoodCourse: What brought you to student support? 

I left school at seventeen and come from a widening participation background. I began working, and then studied accountancy while working. I’ve worked in a range of sectors: public, private, and third sector, as well as in financial services. 

A lot of my work has been in technology innovation — I was awarded the first IBM Smarter Planet award in Scotland and was awarded a JISC i-Tech award in 2013 for my work in creating a personalised mobile application for students when I worked at Edinburgh’s Telford College. I always try to understand the user perspective and have always been driven to try to make things better.  

I began working in education as I believe education can transform lives. I was attracted to the University of Edinburgh due to its values-led strategic approach and its ambitions to widen participation so that students from any background can come to study with us. Working as Academic Registrar I have responsibility for key activity within academic and student lifecycle administration. Registry aspires to offer accessible, responsive and efficient services recognising complex problems are rarely addressed from a single perspective.   

GoodCourse: It can be challenging for students to navigate the administrative processes of joining a new university. You mentioned that you’re working on a new model for this — can you tell us about the challenges you faced during the old process and how your new model will help students undergoing this transition? 

Academic and Pastoral support was provided to students via a Personal Tutoring model which launched in 2012/13. We had some great tutors, but we lacked consistency. Feedback from students through surveys such as the National Student Survey and from our staff told us this system was under pressure. In part this was due to growth in student numbers but also in part due to wider societal changes, expectations and pressures. Whilst it was clear some students felt supported, others didn’t, and we wanted to change this as every student matters. 

Our review began in August 2019. We talked to students about what would make a difference in helping them feel they matter and build a sense of belonging and community. We also benchmarked against universities across the UK, North America and Australia. This led to our new model — an ecosystem of support. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic hit before we could implement the new model, so we started again in 2021. In the new Student Support model, a joined-up team of academics, professional services staff, and fellow students work together to give students clear, actionable guidance and advice with practical matters, their well-being or their studies. Student Advisers are the first point of contact for advice and guidance. They help access things like academic and well-being support, counselling, career guidance, financial help, and immigration advice. 

Student engagement has been really important. We tested concepts with students, and have developed an approach to evaluation and monitoring of the model to help understand if it’s working, and if not, understand where we need to adapt the model. I hope it shows students how much they matter. Edinburgh is a large and devolved university, but we want our students to be the best they can be, and I genuinely believe this model will help them with that. 

GoodCourse: What is your approach to supporting students with topics such as gender-based violence?

Where students experience unacceptable behaviour from another student we have a code of conduct, which we’ve been revising, as well as developing guidance for students. The aim of the guidance is to help students understand the process when they make a complaint and the support we offer. Where a student experiences unacceptable behaviour we offer support in considering their options, give advice about practical actions they can take and give information about external specialist services.  But sometimes, the student just needs an opportunity to talk to someone — and so we offer that too.

We’re constantly working to improve our processes, and involved the student’s association and survivors of sexual violence in this work, because listening to the student voice is crucial to making things better. 

We hired a team of professionals called The Equally Safe Team. Our team is composed of experienced female specialists who can support all genders and help students navigate recovery from a survivor-led, trauma-informed perspective. We’ve also been working with academics who are experts in their field, and had the opportunity to work with visiting academics from the US. They’ve done a lot of work in the US on gender-based violence, so this was a fantastic opportunity to peer review our risk assessment process and our student guidance. 

GoodCourse: What’s your top tip for anyone getting into HE or student support?

The most important thing is to listen. And use your voice to ask the ‘why’ questions — it’s so important that people use their voice to challenge ideas. 

GoodCourse: Who do you admire the most in HE?

That’s a tough question, but I’m going to go with Sue Rigby. She was at Edinburgh when I joined, and you can hear a pin drop when she talks. She’s such an inspiring figure and incredibly interesting to listen to. 

GoodCourse: What’s the most important book you’ve read?

This is a difficult question because I read a lot, but I recently read How to Own the Room by Viv Groskop and really enjoyed it. It features a range of women over a few generations and articulates how they learned to speak and become confident in their voices.

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