Education must be student-focused. Knowledge is not relevant unless learning is understood, communicated, and shared. It is a university’s job to enable this, allowing students to be the absolute best they can be.
Sal Jarvis, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Westminster, refers to herself as a learner-centred individual. She sat down with Charles Sin, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss her journey into Higher Education, the extensive initiatives she has been involved in, and the unique challenges of working at a university.
I have been at Westminster since January 2020. I joined about eight weeks before lockdown, which was an interesting time to join. I am Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Education, which means my portfolio runs across anything to do with educating students. Westminster was London’s first polytechnic; it was about breaking down barriers then, which continues to this day. Our values are compassion, responsibility, and being progressive. About 50% of our students are first-generation, and 64% of our students are not White British, so we have a really vibrant, lively student body that is great to work with.
I have almost always been involved with learners. Education should be learner-centred; for me, that is true whether it’s in preschool, primary school, or teaching adults — at each point, it has been about focusing on the learner. From there, it’s a natural step to think about moving from directly engaging people in learning to lead other people who work with learners.
You cannot separate student experience from education. Universities are places where knowledge is shared and critiqued — but it cannot exist without people. So I believe that any education must be learner-centred and brought to life.
For Westminster, that sense of belonging and inclusion is really important. We have some key priorities in our strategic plan, of which inclusion is one. We articulate it as people being able to bring their whole, authentic selves to the institution and be who they want to be here. People need to be safe and feel safe on campus.
One of my colleagues, Dr Deborah Husbands, has been researching the imposter phenomenon, specifically with regard to young Black women students at universities. The link between students who express imposter phenomenon and those who don’t feel a sense of belonging is really clear.
So what do we do about this? We have a scheme called FANS (friends of arriving new students), run in partnership with the Students' Union. FANS are themselves students who are trained and employed and work with new students when they join Westminster, helping them to connect, make friends and navigate the challenges of coming to university. Since about half of our students are first-generation to university, this is really important for them. Not all our students have cultural capital around what to do — they have to learn it all and might be stuck playing catch up unless we support them.
Not all our students have cultural capital around what to do — they have to learn it all and might be stuck playing catch up unless we support them.
We’re discussing an expansion of our FANS into a peer mentoring service across all years of the university, which would be a big initiative that we’re hoping to go ahead with.
Also, with the Students’ Union, we have invested in enabling them to offer sports and clubs free for all of our students so they can take part in taster activities and not have to pay upfront to take part. Over ten thousand students have taken that up. It’s a great way to connect with people.
We are fostering academic groups and also have students as co-creators in projects, where students work alongside academics, so they’re part of creating the student experience. Students must be able to feel included, relevant, and legitimate.
I think a good place to start is actually: What’s not different? It becomes obvious what the similarities are. The need for learners to feel valued and engaged in their learning — actively engaged instead of passively — is the same regardless of age.
Compared with school-aged people, our students are facing a number of challenges that most primary school pupils are not dealing with. Primary school students don’t need to learn a living, but most of our university students do need to learn a living. By and large, our students are not sufficiently privileged to be able to focus on their studies without having to think about how to pay their way through them. This has only worsened with the cost of living crisis. This means that students’ practical aspects of study — like timetables — can be really important to them, as they can impact engagement. For some, the choice is between going to work and missing university sessions, or going to the sessions and risking losing the job that enables them to go to university in the first place.
Also, in most cases (sadly not all), school students do not have caring responsibilities, whereas many of our students have people they do need to support in some way. External pressures are there for university students. For those who are not local students, life away from home for the first time is hard, and our international students are also navigating life in a new country. They are navigating a different education system for the first time and trying to understand the ways in which a successful student is defined. We must enable our international students to get the cross-cultural experience they came for.
Others have written much more extensively than I have! The place to start is with the top. It absolutely needs to be owned by leadership. Leaders must educate themselves, engage in reverse mentoring, and talk to the students and colleagues to understand the challenges. Most leaders in the UK, although not all, are White British, so they are not in a position of having had lived experience of ethnicity awarding gaps, for example. And even for those colleagues who are not White British, they will inevitably only have their own experience, which doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone. Learning, listening, and leading in pragmatic ways is essential.
Understanding data is crucial; we must know how to remove the barriers and help student groups engage and succeed. Make data intersectional and understand nuance.
Partly it’s pragmatic, and part of it is a sense of belonging and confidence.
One strand would be that students engage where their lessons are engaging. This sounds self-evident, but if students are commuting in, simply to listen to someone talk, they might wonder, ‘why not just listen to the recording’. Consistently, what we hear from our student body is they want practical opportunities to be active. It is important for them to clearly see the link to their wider professional lives; anything with employers is interesting, and authentic learning is important.
Belonging also drives engagement. Being part of a group where you feel confident, have friends, and can have great conversations helps. Pragmatically too: does a student have enough money to drive to campus? Do they have their essential needs covered? All of these things need to be in place for engagement to thrive.