The Interview UK
The University of Hull
Pro Vice Chancellor for Education

Rebecca Huxley-Binns

As the field of higher education evolves, student voice has emerged as the most crucial yet often overlooked instrument of change in universities. As Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), at the University of Hull, Rebecca Huxley-Binns has put listening to the needs of students at the heart of her approach. 

Rebecca sat down with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to share her insights on everything from the challenge of student assessment in a post-pandemic world to strategies for narrowing the awarding gap in higher education.

Rebecca's Journey

Max: Can we start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution?

I'm Professor Becky Huxley-Binns, and I'm Pro Vice Chancellor for Education at The University of Hull. We're a multidisciplinary university with about 15,000 students. I've been here just over five years now, and the university has been through an incredible transformation in that time. 

Max: What inspired you to pursue a career in the world of higher education?

My first full-time job was at Franklin College in Grimsby. I went into higher education because I realised that I could have an impact on undergraduates, particularly as a law teacher. In particular, I enjoyed working with students on their motivation to study law, and their generational views, which is where my research interests started to grow into intergenerational learning. The research followed the teaching, as it always has in my career, so I was fascinated by predominantly undergraduate education, why students want a degree, and how it changes them as people. It's such an exciting period of time for young people, but also a highly challenging one. My eyes were opened by teaching in the distance learning law degree, teaching predominantly mature students who are very different from the typical 18-year-old undergrad. I’ve always loved the questions students ask because it makes you a better teacher and exposes you to different perspectives. 

Max: The attainment gap is a key concern for the sector. What initiatives have you put in place to address this?

Well, we now call it the “awarding gap” rather than the “attainment gap”. That’s because the award is something given by the university, whereas attainment is something achieved by the students – so we have an institutional responsibility to help students reach their potential. There are a multitude of factors, but the main gaps we are concerned with surround mature students, students with disabilities, socio-economic background, and ethnicity. We've worked really hard at Hull to try and tackle some of the underlying causes.

It’s intrinsically linked to the issue of community and belonging. It's fundamental that universities understand their student demographics and understand that each university is unique. You also need to look at how you are carrying out your assessments, because after the pandemic, the assessment history of our incoming students is very different from what it was before.

Max: Have you sought to try and incorporate the student voice in the ways you assess students?

You have to do it very consciously, and you have to decide with colleagues what you will invite from students. They can't just say, “Don't assess us!” – you need to very clearly define the parameters according to the academic discipline before asking for student input. For example, we had a big debate about exams when we started to emerge from Covid. And that conversation changed again due to large language models being freely available. When it comes to exams, the evidence says that they increase awarding gaps rather than decrease them. But when we talked to students in our School of Maths, they asked us not to take away exams! However, our history students preferred alternative forms of assessment. Because universities have this incredible autonomy, we have the ability to evolve our own curriculum – that’s essential to making sure students turn up, get engaged, and succeed.

Max: What’s the key to creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for all students?

Our key focus has been making sure every student feels like they belong, no matter their background. We make sure every student has a personal supervisor who can meet them in a group or individually. We also work in partnership with our Students Union to create opportunities to join communities, clubs, and societies. It’s also crucial to establish shared spaces where students and staff come together and make sure the physical spaces reflect the learning that is happening there. As the driving force behind all of this, we've created something called the Inclusive Education framework with our partner universities. It’s a call to arms to say that inclusion is a journey, not a destination.

Inclusion needs to be reflected in everything: your assessments, your curriculum, and your codes of practice. It’s not easy – that’s why it’s crucial to collaborate with students and let them share their ideas. 

Max: How do you ensure that students are aware of the resources and the support services that are available to them?

We’re working hard, but we don’t have it right just yet. We've done what most universities do: we have an online portal, emails, a website, and our online platforms. But we know we deliver far too much information at induction and expect students to be listening when they are being pulled in so many different directions. So we are rolling out two major technology initiatives: firstly, an online portal that brings all the information that students need into one place; and secondly, building a CRM for students. It’s also important to make sure that specialist support is personalised to what students need. 

Max: Students can be hard to reach. How do you make sure your key messages get across to everybody?

It's a sector-wide challenge, and the pandemic has only made it worse. We've started a big project on attendance and engagement, because although the students who do turn up are generally really engaged, we’ve seen a big drop-off in attendance. For a few years, we’ve been concerned by the completion rate of assessments: rather than run the risk of failing, some students would prefer not to submit anything at all. We know schools have treated this with a carrot-and-stick approach – but don't have sticks, only carrots! So we need to think about how we can get those habits back. When I was a student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I never missed a class. So it’s hard for me to wrap my head around, but I know I need to understand so I can support students better on their path to success.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve heard in your career?

Listen actively, ask questions, and be present in the moment. It's the best advice I've ever received, but it’s the hardest advice I've had to act on.

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