Creating an inclusive campus is often about making progress through seemingly small but highly impactful changes. Peter Miskell, Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) for Education and Student Experience at the University of Reading, has spent his career in Higher Education (HE) and has seen both the academic and student-focussed side. From here, he has been coming up with new and innovative ways to enhance the student experience for everyone.
Peter sat down with Charles Sin, Co-Host of The Interview, to speak about his time working in Student Experience and the incredible inclusion initiatives that he has been at the forefront of.
Reading is a relatively traditional campus-based university, and the majority of our students live on-site in their first year. We also have a large postgraduate student population. We balance teaching and research and prioritise student experience as a large part of what we do, which we are always trying to enhance.
I've been an academic for most of my career, so I've always worked in universities. In my academic role, I held a wide range of roles in my school related to teaching and learning, so was always involved in overseeing the quality of our programmes and what we provide to students. So my background is fairly typical for someone in my role.
Some of it is different, and other parts are very similar. I continue to be involved in academic leadership of teaching and learning at the University, but in addition to this, the two areas I oversee are Student Services and Campus Commerce, which involve things like residence, catering, hospitality and sports. The Campus Commerce side is new to me. Within Student Services, I have also had to develop a closer understanding of the teams across the university and how they interrelate with one another. It’s important to take a student-led perspective but realise the staff perspective, too, so that they align.
It is a broad-based set of initiatives that were put in during Covid, and it was a way for the university to develop an organisational response to the challenges we were facing that could be more long-lasting. This meant thinking about how the university was evolving and changing. Through our portfolio review, we are looking at how to restructure the academic year, for example. Some of the issues we’re looking at have been there for a long time but were difficult to address without structural change. The old term system we had meant a teaching term in the autumn and another one in the spring, then exams in summer, but students were telling us it was frustrating to complete modules in autumn and not sit an exam on that module until the following summer — moving to semesters means that assessment happens much closer to the point when modules are taught. It also means the pressures on students can be balanced more evenly, with less of an assessment bottleneck in the Summer Term.
Our Inclusion Consultants scheme is now in its second year, where we seek input and advice from students with a mixed range of backgrounds and lived experiences. We provide payment, and these students serve as a focus group meeting weekly to speak about some of the issues that students are facing. Then, when we are developing policies and initiatives, we can gain insight from their voices and ensure that we are listening to a diverse range of students. This helps us understand data as well as real lived experiences.
One thing that came out of that work is that now when students enrol, we have a section in enrolment where they can state their preferred pronouns. That might seem small, but it means that students come to the university and don’t have to explain that detail to faculty because it is already presented on the system. It’s a way of making people feel that they are able to express their identity and make people feel included, which is so important.
Universities thrive on exchanging knowledge and ideas and having diversity of thoughts and ideas; it’s really important that we support that.
In terms of designing teaching, we’ve had a big project on decolonising the curriculum. We've been providing a lot of support for staff and colleagues around how they can move from the traditional ways of teaching a subject to make the curriculum more inclusive. If a course is taught from a western White male perspective, then we want to diversify the range of voices and ideas that we are introducing. Universities thrive on exchanging knowledge and ideas and having diversity of thoughts and ideas; it’s really important that we support that.
I think a lot of colleagues feel that they have a liberal outlook on life and that those surrounding them do too, and this can make it difficult for people to see that there is still a problem with discrimination. It’s about looking further than that, looking at the data and giving people the evidence around things like degree awarding, outcomes, and continuation rates. We do see that students from different backgrounds are less likely to succeed, and that shouldn't be the case. It shows that just because you don’t believe you are being deliberately discriminatory, it doesn’t mean there isn't a problem; there are deeper structural issues at play and we need to pay attention to them, being proactive in breaking down barriers.
The key thing is that students don't really need to be taught about EDI in a basic sense — they’re pretty switched on to that concept already. I see our job as holding up our end and being inclusive in delivering services and programmes to them. It’s also about telling them why we are doing what we’re doing, letting them know that it’s something we value and bringing them into that process. We can discuss with students what inclusivity looks like, and those simple explanations can make a big difference.