When it comes to making the student experience the best it can be, it’s important to consider the student experience holistically, rather than focusing only on academic success.
Sam Grogan, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at Salford University, works to give Salford students and graduates all of the skills they need to succeed.
GoodCourse universities lead Kitty Hadaway asks Sam about how he adapted to remote learning during the pandemic, and what he is most excited to be working on right now.
I’ve had quite a unique journey into the student experience field. I started my career as a creative in theatre, and I had a fantastic time touring the world and performing, but I’ve always had a very academic mind, and knew that I wanted to get back into education at some point.
I started as an academic at Bath Spa University and moved into programme leadership and then onto more senior roles. I also became was more interested in applied and practical learning, so I sought out different management and leadership positions, and eventually became Director of Higher Education at a different institution focusing on performing arts.
Working in education made me realise that the opportunity to make change for the better was really what brought meaning into my life.
I had always felt like performance was my “thing”, but working in education made me realise that the opportunity to make change for the better was really what brought meaning into my life.
The way I do this now on a large scale is by working to improve teaching and learning across my own institution and across the national and international sectors. It’s exciting to see so many students’ university lives improved by our work, even if they don’t know always who is behind it!
At Salford, the move to remote learning had to happen extremely quickly. I remember the campus literally shutting down around us and having only a few days to put all of our teaching online.
Right from the start though, we made sure we put student engagement first by connecting with the Student Union in our decision-making processes. Students are experts at learning, so it seems obvious to say but we needed their thoughts and contributions in order to know how best to shape our help for them as we all went through the experience of the pandemic.
In the early days of the pandemic, the goalposts were constantly moving. It was so crucial for us to be transparent with our staff and students when we didn’t necessarily have all of the answers. In the end, the solution was often for us to get out of the way: to allow leaders in different departments to determine what was best for them and for my team to support where needed.
When it comes to post-pandemic planning, we often speak in terms of going “back” – “back” to campus, or “back” to in-person teaching. I prefer to think of it as moving forward with all of the learnings we have accrued in the last few years, and applying what we now know works best.
It’s still, however, very important for us to consider the long-term impacts of coronavirus. School pupils who are in Year 9 now will be leaving university in 2030 or 2031, so we need to consider how to adapt for the next decade, not just the next few academic cycles.
I’m excited to support students as they come to Salford and help them build the skills that they need to succeed in a post-pandemic graduate landscape. Some of these skills may have also been harder for our students to acquire and develop through the pandemic.
We work particularly closely with schools and colleges in the local area to support students right through their application journeys and help give them pre-arrival insight into what life at our university is like. It’s also vital to us that students feel a sense of belonging here, something that is perhaps now more important than ever.
At the moment, I’m leading a student success project. This is aimed at engaging students to help them succeed and progress through their courses in a timely way, as well as making them highly skilled and very employable.
At Salford, we work with students as closely as we can. The student doesn’t necessarily divide their experience into “academic” and “non-academic” elements, but rather they experience life at university much more holistically.
We are continually working to improve how we collect and use data and information to help personal tutors support students across the whole of their learning experience. We want to give students all of the equipment they need to succeed, but also enable them to work as hard and as well as they can and to be successful through that.
I’ve also recently joined the Advance HE board. I’m proud of how Advance HE enables the development of teaching, learning, leadership and matters of equality in the Higher Education practice. Contributing to national and international debate and development in these areas is an absolute privilege for me.
It’s easy to overestimate how much you can do in a month or a year, and underestimate how much you can do in a decade – so try to think in the long term and set time aside for reflection. This is a difficult balancing act and I’m not sure I have ever managed this with total success!
I was lucky to start my Higher Education career surrounded by wonderful colleagues. I’ll forever be indebted to a gentleman called Gunduz Kalic, my manager and my mentor at Bath Spa University and a fantastic colleague overall. He helped unlock a lot of what I have become and his thinking has significantly shaped my own thought and action.
I’m also very inspired by students at Salford too: they will continue to contend with a graduate landscape which is more disrupted and volatile than it has been in decades, and I don’t envy them for that. Just being able to get here and do what they are doing is a phenomenal achievement.
I have three books that I can recommend for entertainment and wide-ranging scope, insight and provocations: Homosapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari are all fantastic reads.