Safety has risen on the agenda in recent times. When a university has a large population of commuter students, Higher Education (HE) leaders must find unique ways to engage these cohorts in campus life, while ensuring that a sense of safety is felt at all times.
Mairi Watson, Pro Vice Chancellor (PVC) for Education and Student Experience at the University of Hertfordshire, sat down with GoodCourse Universities Lead Kitty Hadaway to discuss how she approaches student (re)engagement on campus, working collaboratively with the Students’ Union, and more.
I’m Mairi Watson, PVC for Education and Student Experience at the University of Hertfordshire. I look after everything to do with the academic experience, which also includes aspects of social and community. The University of Hertfordshire has two incredibly vibrant campuses and 33,000 students. Our undergraduate students are spread across 7 different schools, on predominantly professionally focused courses. We pride ourselves on the employment focus we provide.
Prior to this, I was Dean of the Faculty of Business and Law at another university which was similar to the University of Hertfordshire in that they both have very strong widening access strategies. 70% of our students here are covered by our access and participation plan, meaning they’re from households with income lower than £25,000, underrepresented postcodes, BAME students, mature students, and students with registered disabilities.
I was a prison governor before working in HE. The challenges faced are not too dissimilar — large organisations with complex populations, and a focus on building strong communities. In both roles, there’s a focus on making a difference to people’s lives — which is hugely important to me.
I joined Hertfordshire in May 2020 so I had to get to know the university in a non-traditional way. Learning your way around university online is quite different from face-to-face. Belonging and community, for me, means showing students that they matter to us. We did comparatively well in a Covid-world, getting fantastic NSS outcomes on community and student voice.
Belonging and community, for me, means showing students that they matter to us.
Strangely, it was easier during the pandemic to get in front of our students to tell them they matter to us. Our focus is on how we get our students competent academically and socially. We work directly with the Students’ Union and the students. Every single student has a voice, so you can’t just work through institutional structures, you have to inculcate feedback all the time. I meet regularly with student representatives and it keeps us in touch with what we’re aiming to do.
It’s a really important thing to get our students to work collaboratively. We have been growing practice in something called compassionate pedagogy; really, it means getting students to work compassionately with each other. Often, it’s the loudest voice that gets heard for the longest, and we want to change that.
The social experience of learning is built into our university. We use blended flexible learning and have lots of social learning spaces.
We take individual experiences very seriously. You will have heard of the BAME awarding gap — a shameful position for universities to be in. Our university has a very strong institutional action plan that has allowed us to drive down that awarding gap. BAME students come here expecting they’ll do just as well, if not better, than their White counterparts.
It’s no comfort to say that serious incidents are extremely low, because they should be at zero. A feeling of safety is just as important as actual safety. Even when the actual risk of harm is very low, the impact of fear is very significant. We have a predominantly female campus, and students from all over the world with different expectations of acceptable behaviour — we need to keep everyone safe.
50% of our students are commuters, so we can only be responsible for our students some of the time, but they need to have confidence that when things do go wrong, we will act.
We’ve also been working with the SU — they’ve implemented additional training for security and other teams, like on spiking, and we’ve also got the Ask for Clive/Angela initiatives. We have our own police officers and large security team on campus, who are great. In fact, our security officers won an award from the SU last year for being the best team in the university.
We’ve done incredibly well in the NSS on our student voice work. That’s because we have great governance and structural accountability when it comes to platforming the student voice. Students very much enjoy being heard, but they rightly demand that what they say gets actioned.
We showed during Covid that we can move fast — which is good, because students want things resolved quickly when there are problems. We can direct resources quickly. To give an example, students have spoken about the cost of living crisis — within a fortnight, we secured additional funding for our hardship fund, part of our support package for students most in need.
Leave everything you thought you knew about working in HE at the door, and focus on the student perspective. Our students are not who the press think they are, so look at everything from multiple perspectives.
Our students – they’ve fought hard to go to university, and many don’t have networks around them that have encouraged it. They’re absolutely worth my admiration.
I’ve just read The Country of Others, by Leila Slimani. It’s a fantastic book about the transformative power of education.