An essential part of serving students in a Higher Education (HE) role is not just thinking about what they need, but actively asking them and listening to the answer when they tell you. That is why having a strong connection between student services and the students themselves is so beneficial.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews spoke to Mark Allinson, Director of Student Experience at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), about the strong bond he has built between his department and the Student Union and how this helps to create a sense of community and belonging on campus.
I am the Director of Student Experience at LSE, which is a new role here, reflecting the importance of student experience at university. My role is to provide a holistic view of the student experience, including learning, community support, representation, student voice, and maintaining a relationship with the Students’ Union.
I have always been very student-focused from the beginning of my career as an academic. My last role was Associate Provost, dealing with student-related responsibilities at the institutional level. When the job at LSE came up, it was an opportunity to focus more on the student experience in a different context and to build something new at LSE; that's why I was attracted to the role.
I have been an academic my whole life, and was a student for a long time as well, doing an undergraduate degree, a master’s and then a Ph.D., moving through the ranks of junior lecturer, professor, head of school, and then head of the department. I have seen different perspectives within the academic and all that comes into teaching and learning.
More recently, I have also been in leadership roles where I have lent important professional and support services to my team. Having an academic background allows me to see certain perspectives of the student experiences and to really empathise with the academics as well as the students.
The Students’ Union at LSE conducted a democracy review last year which was exercised across all departments, and that really paved the way for us in the next term. We have a student charter at LSE as well, which is a statement of commitment between the university and the students. This includes different endeavours that we will undertake to promote engagement among students, helping them to make the most of their time here. This will be an ongoing piece of work that we will collaborate on together. We believe in co-creation here, which is vital — we work together across the Students’ Union and wider student bodies as well as the school to ensure what we’re planning is effective.
We’re really focusing on building up the central school community. Our students are attracted to LSE as an institution for its reputation and the quality of research, but we had a gap in the engagement of school-wide activities so that has been the focus, starting with set events like the welcome and graduation ceremonies, which are centrally coordinated. These activities help in developing a sense of community.
We have also recently appointed a School Community Programme Manager whose purpose is to promote LSE-wide events, not just one-off events but also finding new ways to effectively use the campus space. We found we weren’t using 50% of available campus space, but recent construction and some lovely new additions to spaces have created a new physical environment that people want to stick around in. We want to capitalise on that further in the coming year.
We have the policies and safety procedures that you can expect any institution to have against all kinds of harassment and abuse, but most importantly we have been focusing on preventative work and building a culture where these behaviours are not accepted in the first place.
Again, we are really close with the Students’ Union; they took the lead with an important programme on consent which rolled out last year and has been moving into a higher gear this year. If students want to be placed in halls of residence, they have to complete the consent training. It is a really good initiative that came from the students, and the Students’ Union led that with support and resources from the school. We have particular groups on financial support and participation support too, so a lot of it is building culture and conservation in terms of those behaviours.
My top tip is to expect and embrace change because there is a constant revolution in HE. There isn't a year that goes by where there aren't changes, and as a change agent I really thrive in that. I look forward to new roles, and I embrace them. For people who want that kind of excitement of new agendas, HE is ideal.
I admire Stephen Brookefield, an academic based in the USA. He has done a lot of work around inclusive teaching. Being a White man working in sometimes deprived US school and college jurisdiction, but remaining completely aware of his privilege, his most valuable contribution has been through literature in terms of writing.
Stephen Brookfield's book, Becoming A Critically Reflective Teacher. In terms of education, this is one book that I certainly recommend and have found the most useful.