Real change is made by taking small steps in the right direction and acknowledging that it won’t happen overnight. However, when it comes to Higher Education (HE) spaces, it’s essential that these steps are based on listening to student voices and ensuring inclusion is at the heart of these changes.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews spoke to Wendy Fowle, Associate Dean for Student Outcomes at Oxford Brookes University, on the importance of listening to students and engaging as a whole institution to make meaningful change.
I’m the Associate Dean for Student Outcomes at Oxford Brookes University and the academic lead for our access and participation work across the university. In practice, this means overseeing initiatives to support students from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds to enable them to achieve equity among their peers and have a positive student experience whilst they are here.
I’ve always been interested in equity. Prior to working in HE, I worked for the Learning and Skills Council where I took strategic responsibility for developing an understanding of the needs of different groups of people in the local community and then working to find solutions.
I then worked as a teaching assistant which drove my passion for training to be a primary school teacher. Through this role, I had to ensure that the needs of all pupils were being met, leading me to adapt my approach to teaching. Whilst I enjoyed teaching, ultimately, I missed the research element of the work, and so I moved to the Open University in a research and evaluation role around widening participation. There, I was given opportunities to really extend the remit of the role and to develop initiatives around access and participation. The skills I learned in that role set me up for my current role as Associate Dean at Oxford Brookes.
It’s really important to look at what we can do as an institution and not just what individuals are perceived to be lacking. One of the main things is making sure to use the information, knowledge, and insights we gain from talking to our community of students to change our institutional practice and culture, and to enhance that culture of inclusion, identity, and belonging — rather than othering certain groups.
One of the main things is making sure to use the information, knowledge, and insights we gain from talking to our community of students to change our institutional practice and culture.
It’s about listening to students to understand what barriers or challenges they face, either coming into HE or when they get here. Then it's ensuring they feel supported and included in university life. Our job is to listen and then act upon that information from a strategic and institutional perspective.
Most of the initiatives I work on are led by research and evidence, and that’s what we use to drive action. I have been involved in projects to enhance inclusivity within the curriculum which often started with small pilot studies which then get adopted as core institutional strategies. One particular initiative led to institutional Key Performance Indicators being adopted within the institutional strategy. So a very small piece of insight work and scholarship has transcended into a big institutional change programme.
It’s about ensuring that students see themselves reflected in every aspect of the university. Whether it’s in the governance structure, decision-making, or social activities. Do they see people like them, whatever their background? Belonging shouldn’t be an afterthought, it should be embedded into the university's culture, and people should see that, whether you’re a potential student, a current student, or someone from within the local community.
We always aim to ensure that students who are perhaps less likely to engage in programmes of this sort are encouraged to come forward to participate. We know that many students from disadvantaged backgrounds often have to juggle lots of different roles and responsibilities outside of their studies, so we need to ensure that we are enabling those students to participate in a way that won’t inadvertently disadvantage them further.
We have some curriculum consultants that were appointed to support our inclusive curriculum work, and we had a very diverse pool of applicants for these roles. So the appetite is absolutely there.
We’re committed to listening and being student-led in all of our initiatives. Still, the real challenge is making sure that the students we need to reach are the ones who are enabled and given the opportunity to engage. This could include providing additional credit to students for attending certain initiatives or making it part of the curriculum rather than an add-on.
With the hybrid world that we’re working in now, we’re keen on getting the students back on campus and enabling social interactions, while, at the same time, equally recognising that we are living in a different world post-Covid. I think we have shown that online learning can work, but it’s important that we enable those interactions.
We are working at Brookes towards supporting students in all their work through academic advising roles, induction programmes, and transition programmes; all this to make engagement in university life a part of the student experience. We’re working on some of those initiatives as we speak. However, the general support to engage is strategically led within the faculties and within the programmes, and so it’s really embedded across the whole institution.
Listening to people and learning from others. As a part of the community, whatever area or level you work in, it’s important to understand the experiences of our colleagues and other students and learn from each other.
Dr Liz Marr, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Students at the Open University. I began working with her in 2013, and she has provided me with the opportunities to be where I am today. She showed me how to listen to people and how to really work with others in engaging across different parts of the university.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Reflecting on ‘now’ has enabled me to take a different approach to my personal and professional practice.