Often when people think of universities, they primarily focus on students’ studies in the classroom while not considering the material realities that can affect their success. One of the roles of Student Services, however, is to identify what may be holding students back — and it’s not always the most obvious thing — to make their educational journey as successful and therefore as rewarding as possible.
GoodCourse spoke to Maria Lee, Acting Director of Education and Student Services at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) about supporting students in ways that go beyond the academic so that they see the campus as a nurturing home, which in turn can help them succeed in their studies.
At its heart, the focus of Education and Student Services is the learner and working alongside the academic departments, to enable students to thrive academically, personally, and professionally. Our Registry Services ensures students enrol and manages the student record efficiently and effectively with a good experience, as students work their way through their studies. We also deliver a range of student support services: immigration services, disability, and student wellbeing, careers and learning development support. It’s a rich mix of services and experiences. It’s quite a privileged position to support the student experience and journey at key stages. Another aspect is understanding at the diversity of the student population, is really important for developing our thinking of what it means to educate and support students’ in a global environment.
It was an interesting path. I have a Masters degree in Psychology, and I initially worked in Further Education. My passion throughout my career has been learning and development. That’s the common theme. My postgraduate research was in how to use and design technology to support work. So I worked initially on how you would implement technology in businesses but then moved into designing and developing computer-based learning, now called e-learning or online learning. So that was my journey into Higher Education (HE). Then I moved more into educational development, designing and supporting good student learning experiences, and then expanded into student development. My portfolio focused on the student experience but within an educational context. I became the Head of Educational Skills Development, a division within what is now Education and Student Services. Then a couple of years ago, I took on the acting director role which has allowed me to see the totality of our services and look at how to better connect them. I want to enable students to focus on why they’re here and not get bogged down in admin or transactional issues.
At QUB, we reverted to being back on campus earlier than a lot of institutions and that was because, while online learning can enhance and enable, we saw that the students had a real need to be physically back together. We were very lucky that our full return to campus coincided with the opening of our new student centre, which houses our Student Services and our Students’ Union. What was fabulous about that is it has a range of spaces for students to come together, socialise, study in groups, etc., and they did! The other important outcomes is it also makes visible to the students all the other kinds of services we have on offer. These include formal learning opportunities but also informal ones. Things like clubs and societies, are really important opportunities for students to get to know one another and develop a sense of belonging, which is an important aspect of their feeling comfortable and content in terms of learning.
We’ve always had a strong partnership with the Students’ Union, and it’s true to say that returning to campus, we had to work together to achieve levels of engagement similar pre-2019 levels. During the pandemic, we developed our partnership with students, for example, we recruited students as digital champions to help motivate and support students. Coming out of COVID, we’ve seen the development of student voice committees. There have been definite efforts to promote that because there’s been a sense that, while students came back well, there’s still work to be done to build that level of engagement.
An additional obstacle has been the cost of living crisis. We have a strong base of students who commute, and we recognised that that may be underpinning some of the slow-to-return engagement. We tackled that issue by providing bursary payments to students, as well as a stocked pantry and free breakfasts and lunches. We wanted students to see campus as a place where they wouldn’t have to worry about things like food and heat in the winter.
One thing we’ve put a lot of effort into is student wellbeing and making sure we have good central support. When things go wrong, we want to ensure staff have a clear pathway to supporting the students and escalating the situation appropriately. And so we’ve have expanding our student wellbeing team, including b a post to coordinate with colleagues in schools and faculties, building a community practice, and trying to build consistency and clarity so if something does happen, we can manage that and support that much better.
We’ve also been developing our education strategy so that wellbeing is a core focus of how we deliver our education and assessment while also thinking about inclusivity and diversity. We have that common theme of collaboration with school, faculty, and professional services, working together in partnership anchored in terms of student experience.