What Student Hubs Learnt from the Universities UK Student Engagement Conference

Posted on: 15 August 2022

On 26th May 2022, our Partnerships and Development Director Fiona Walsh attended the Universities UK conference, ‘Enhancing the Student Experience 2022’. As a charity working with several university partners and 1400+ students each year, we’re passionate about student experience, and the conference was a great way to hear from our colleagues in the sector about the latest practice and thoughts of how we could develop our own practice in student engagement and student experience.

We wanted to share our key takeaways from the conference, and how we’re planning to embed new practice into our own work.

Takeaway 1: Continuing to build power with students

During a panel event featuring Benjamin Hunt, Student Engagement Manager with the Office for Students (OfS), Professor Linda Bauld OBE, Chief Social Policy Advisor from the Scottish Government, and Nehaal Bajwa, Diversity, Access & Participation Officer from the University of Sussex, many key points were raised for student support and expertise.

Among them was the impact of the pandemic on students, and how the systems students use (both technological systems and the structural systems within universities) need to be more accessible. Accessing support was a key need for students during the pandemic, and often challengingly designed systems, or having to go through multiple processes to access support, was a large barrier for students trying to engage with university services, or participate in activities. Nehaal Bajwa in particular spoke about how “building power with students is a priority”, and that the systems we use to engage students should all be doing this as effectively as possible.

Accessibility and empowering students is a key part of what we do at Student Hubs, and something we feel particularly passionate about as an active part of our work and model. We’re putting these beliefs into practice this summer by planning to change our application and volunteer management systems to be more streamlined, both for students and staff. We’re also including information which every student will receive at programme training sessions which highlights key support they can access, both from us and their university, in addition to the comprehensive training and support they already receive from our team.

Takeaway 2: The power of phone calls and other communication tools to re-engage students

Ed Foster, Head of Student Engagement and Analytics at Nottingham Trent University, shared about their approach to learning analytics and the retention and transition of students at their university. One of the key parts of their process in trying to engage students who may show signs of disengagement includes a check in email and a phone call. What their data showed was that although they saw some re-engagement with the check in email, where they could call and speak to a student, this was most effective in terms of supporting students to re-engage and signposting to other support services.

We are also thinking more strongly about exit and student support processes for students in our programmes. In a session with Catherine Glew, Project Manager for AVA (Against Violence and Abuse), this session reflected on research conducted by AVA, the NUS and UUK which highlighted the impact of sexual misconduct on campus, and flagged that many students were likely to withdraw both from their academic course and volunteering or extracurricular opportunities as a result of the impact of these experiences. It also spotlighted the impact that can be had by students who might hear these disclosures of experiences, and a lack of understanding from students (both those who were victims of sexual misconduct and those who heard these disclosures) of what support they could access.

Through our programmes we have close contact with our students and are always at the other end of an email, and we use phone calls effectively in our work, for example when collecting end of year feedback or in texting our volunteers to confirm attendance for key events. Part of our programme development work this summer will include embedding strategies like phone calls into our general checklist guidance for how to run effective programmes at Student Hubs, making sure this approach is consistent across our network and included across all points of programme delivery. This will include engaging students involved in our activities, and in being proactive for reaching out to students who do drop out or disengage from our work to support students, and understand how we can continue to improve our practice.

Takeaway 3: Adapting our programmes to the cost of living crisis and making them even more inclusive

We have always been aware of the barriers which many volunteers can face to opportunities, but the cost of living crisis is a significant issue which will further impact students’ financial ability to participate. Two ways in which this can be seen is through financial hardship and digital hardship.

Our programmes provide travel expenses, but we know that completing a travel expenses form and waiting two weeks or more for reimbursement can be a barrier to students’ participation. Our approach since the pandemic has been blended, and the benefits for accessibility has been a key reason why we’ve continued this delivery throughout the past two years. We’ll continue to run both virtual and face-to-face opportunities as part of our work, and put into practice even more mindful ways to support students when we do ask them to be in-person.

This links to another issue, which is digital hardship. Many students may struggle with equipment which is slow, broken, or challenging to use. They may also not necessarily have the digital skills which will enable them to thrive at university or in our programmes e.g. knowledge of video calling systems, the Cloud/Google Drive, or other virtual systems. Earlier we mentioned our new training content which will provide more in-depth student support information, and as part of this, we are including digital skills slides, to ensure that all of our participants are on the same page and feel comfortable coming to us with questions about systems and technology support.

Other key takeaways

There were many other small takeaways which we would like to share, which includes:

  • Embedding more creative reflective practices in our opportunities (e.g. storyboarding) to allow students to explore their skills, experiences and growth in new, exciting and more accessible ways, and creating space for this work
  • Continuing to consult the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals when improving existing programmes and developing new ones, using them as a global signpost to our local work
  • Reminding staff to give students opportunities to correct them with name pronunciation, where students might not have felt comfortable correcting them in the early stages of the programme. This was key research presented by Dr Jane Pilcher, Associate Professor of Sociology from Nottingham Trent University who has been conducting a research project called ‘Say My Name’ (with findings due to be published soon)

Overall we have learnt a lot from Fiona’s participation in the conference, and we’re excited to take forward these reflections into the new academic year.

Our team have also been presenting at several conferences this summer which means we’ll be continuing to embed even more learning from these events across the summer, including:

  • Our Southampton Hub Manager Catherine Taplin-Thorpe presenting about ten years of Schools Plus delivery at the NEON Summer Symposium at Keele University, she will be writing a blog about the paper presentation shortly for NEON, but you can see more about ten years of Schools Plus at the Student Hubs blog here
  • Partnerships and Development Director Fiona shared at the Student Volunteering Network conference (virtually) and at the FACE 2022 conference at the University of Southampton about wellbeing and belonging at Student Hubs. You can see Fiona’s blog about the topic for FACE in July 2021 here
  • Our Sustainability Programme Manager (Wales), Jay Chard attended the Net Zero Wales and Regenerative Futures – HEFCW funded event by the Open University held at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, to share about our current partnership with the Open University in Wales and delivery of Engage for Change
  • Fiona attended the Leeds Conservatoire artistic citizenship conference in June, a two day event in Leeds which links with our current knowledge exchange project with Leeds Conservatoire, which was followed by Graduate Intern (Leeds) Iona Gillies delivering the One Community Forum at Leeds Conservatoire in late July
  • Fiona also attended the virtual SU22 Digital conference sharing about our approach to supporting employability for students

If you would like to learn more about Student Hubs’ work and programmes, please get in touch with Partnerships and Development Director, Fiona Walsh at fiona.walsh@studenthubs.org.

Fiona Walsh

Fiona is Student Hubs' Partnerships and Development Director. She leads on university sales, alumni and corporate fundraising, marketing strategy and external relations. Fiona started her social action journey as a student volunteer with Southampton Hub.

Tags: Education, Higher Education, Social Action

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