The Interview UK
Birmingham City University
Assistant Director of Student Services

Richard Booth

A significant aspect of shaping student experience in Higher Education (HE) is communication, whether that be between Student Services teams, or with students themselves. To Richard Booth, Assistant Director of Student Services at Birmingham City University (BCU), face-to-face communication with students is the key to inclusion and engagement, both on and off campus. 

Richard took the time to speak with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to shed light on how his team facilitates communication with BCU’s student body, and utilises feedback to improve their approach. 

Richard's Journey

Luke: Let’s start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution…

I’m Richard Booth, Assistant Director of Student Services at BCU. I joined in 2015 to lead the team that deals with complaints and appeals, and I’ve slowly taken on different responsibilities. My current role sits within the broader Student and Academic Services Directorate that’s made up of Student Inclusion, Mental Health and Wellbeing, Student Governance, and money and childcare advisors. 

As for BCU, we’re a city-centre campus, with another campus in Edgbaston, and we’re very representative of our city. We have 30,000 students, 70% of whom come from the local area, from very diverse backgrounds in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic factors, so we have a big role to play in transforming the lives of those in our community.

Luke: What drew you to the world of Student Services?

I am a lawyer by background, and I previously worked for a legal charity that would provide individuals with a barrister who could give them free legal advice and representation, so I worked with very vulnerable people in difficult circumstances. When I began working in Student Services, I thought the chance to transform people’s lives would be what I missed most but, actually, students face such a variety of issues that I still feel I can make a significant difference to their experiences, and that’s ultimately what’s kept me here. 

Luke: How do you ensure a sense of inclusion and belonging at BCU?

We have to understand the communities that we’re dealing with because the issues faced in other universities are often quite different to what our students encounter here. I regularly go to meetings with our postgraduate representatives, where we talk about the main issues they’re facing and how we can best communicate with them. Since postgraduate and undergraduate experiences are very different, you can’t communicate with them in the same way because, if students feel like they’re being treated as a homogenous group, it chips away at their sense of belonging and inclusion. Face-to-face communication with those different groups is so valuable as it ensures we tailor our work to the spectrum of student experience, as well as ensuring that our students feel their distinct experiences are being recognised and included in our efforts. 

Luke: What’s been most effective at engaging the whole student body?

There’s always a risk with Student Services that we communicate to our students rather than with them, meaning we lose out on that all-important student voice, so we need to ensure we communicate with students to understand what they need to feel engaged. For example, we have a student advisory group made up of around fifteen students who are paid to meet with us to talk about mental health. They help us plan events and activities and answer any questions we might have, but we also rely on them for outreach to the wider student community. Local communication channels and peer-to-peer outreach are much more effective at engaging our student body than if we handled all of the communication ourselves, especially because we can get their feedback about how engaged other students are with our messaging, and make improvements accordingly.

Luke: How do you go about preventing harassment and promoting student safety? 

You have to set student expectations early on, both in terms of what we deem to be unacceptable behaviour and when action will be taken, but also so that we can empower students to make us aware of unacceptable behaviour. To that end, we have our Report and Support tool, but we also have a specific communications plan to continually promote that tool throughout the academic year, and find out what we can do differently to ensure it evolves alongside student safety needs.

Additionally, being a city-centre campus in the second biggest city in the country presents a unique student safety challenge, so we communicate regularly about off-campus safety. We also tackle that challenge by maintaining a strong relationship with the West Midlands police through our liaison officer, and a separate police officer who is based on our campus. With their help, even if an incident has taken place off campus, we can still talk students through the process, and help them file a report. That’s really effective in promoting student safety because they know we’ll look after them, irrespective of where they’re based. 

Luke: How do you best prepare teams at BCU for fast-paced change and embracing new ideas? 

Not everyone is going to be up to date with the sector, so first and foremost it’s important to ensure that staff feel connected to their job and HE as a whole. BCU delivers ‘town hall meetings’, and there’s a standing item within those meetings that brings everyone up to speed with updates in HE regulation. That information helps people realise that we’re part of a much bigger whole, so they can understand how much influence their work has. It’s often difficult to recognise how Student Services is making a difference, especially when you’re just doing administrative tasks instead of interacting with students, but even the smallest tasks, like processing a student’s break in studies for mental health, will help them complete their course. Our team volunteers at graduation, and it’s so rewarding to see those students walk across the stage and know that you played a part in that. Reminding everyone that students are at the heart of what we do makes a huge difference to their willingness to embrace change and new ideas.

Luke: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received during your career?

The first is to grasp the nettle, meaning that if there are thorny things that need to be dealt with, don’t let them fall down your to-do list just because they’re difficult. The longer you let them sit, the more complex they’ll get. The second is, if you get something wrong, you need to take responsibility because the sooner you admit to it, the sooner you can start putting things right.

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