Ensuring students can access our training

Fiona Walsh is Partnerships and Development Director at Student Hubs

Following the flurry of Welcome Week, it’s that time of year where the training and slide decks are coming back out, and we’re thinking ahead to an exciting year of delivery for students.

But there”s an elephant in the room that we hoped we had left in the last academic year – the challenge of getting students into the room in the first place.

Inspiring, engaging training is only brilliant if we have students turn up to sessions to participate in the exciting icebreakers and dynamic group activities we have planned.

Our training sessions in 2019 look quite different to 2023, and adapting to our current context is yet another barrier to welcoming students into our training rooms.

The context we’re dealing with

We all know times are tough right now. Students continue to be burdened by a range of factors which are impacting their ability and willingness to attend the training student unions, volunteering services and opportunities staff are delivering.

This includes fighting for time between paid jobs and their extracurricular activities; the demands of commuting; anxiety and worry about attending a new environment or opportunity; and the cost of living crisis meaning students are out of pocket simply for existing on and off campus.

Whilst it was released in February 2022, the Student Futures Report from the UPP Foundation and the Student Futures Commission did a brilliant job of summarising the issues which we are still facing today as a sector.

This includes “[establishing] a worrying baseline of low confidence” in students, who felt “much anxiety about lost or rusty social skills”. It also reminded us that “students sitting their GCSEs in summer 2022 will not graduate from university until summer 2027 at the earliest”, with this year’s current cohort of students entering university not having seen a “normal” school year since they were in starting Year 9 in 2018.

The focus has to be on accessibility

So in preparing our slide decks and getting ready to welcome the students who do find their way to our opportunities, what should we be considering? Students are drawn to our training rooms through some channel, whether that be through social media, email, our websites or a QR code snapped at freshers fair, so let”s get meticulous about what goes out into the world.

We are facing a crisis of overwhelm in our current student population. In a university experience where more and more emphasis is placed on value for money, graduate outcomes and how to spend the narrowing amount of time students have, every opportunity goes under the scrutiny of, “Will attending be worth it?” At the heart of this question is the topic of accessibility.

Balancing the question of “access” can feel like a gauntlet for students based on their individual circumstances and needs. Do they need to consider where they’re going to park because they have to head to their part-time job not long after the session ends?

Do they struggle with the building”s staircase and the terrible lift which never seems to work? Does the building have accessible toilets for the chronic health condition they’re dealing with?

Snap

Students need to make quickfire decisions in a world of overwhelm, and clear, concise and useful information is one of the only balms to this need. Especially if you’re using social media, it’s vital that your recruitment materials are accessible, like using image descriptions and ensuring key information such as dates and times are both in the graphic and the post.

If you have control over sign up forms or processes, you should take a look. Sit down with a student and watch them complete a sign up form: note where the pain points are, get a stopwatch out and time it. There”s no point collecting lots of information from students at the point of sign up if the form is so long it stops them from pressing submit in the first place.

Training as an opportunity to shape future leaders

Access doesn’t only include getting to the training session in the first place: it also considers the quality of the experience once students are there. The goal of the training we design and deliver for students shouldn’t simply be about them transactionally receiving information to participate in an opportunity on or off campus.

Training should be an opportunity for students and student leaders to centre their personal development, and students should be directly involved in this learning journey.

At Student Hubs, our student leadership framework considers how we can embed development areas such as self-awareness, communication, collaboration and influencing into our students” practice and engagement with our volunteering opportunities, which incidentally are all areas we ask our candidates to speak about when we interview them for jobs at our organisation.

If as a sector we approach our training through that lens, would our slide decks still look the same?

The goal should be student partnership

Co-creation and student partnership are loaded terms in the sector at the moment. Often, what is missed is the nuance that is required for a true partnership, as collaboration has to be based in having an equal respect for what each party can bring to the table. When designing our training opportunities, we can diversify our opportunities for students to get involved, not only as participants but leaders in these activities.

This could be through having them actively feed back into our training slides, through leading as group facilitators or trainers in the activities we”re delivering, or by acting as critical friends in sharing how they think we could make our sessions more engaging or accessible. Yet this can only happen if we take time to incentivise these opportunities, and if we meet each student on a one-to-one basis with what support they need to thrive in these roles.

This all circles back again to whether we can get students in the room in the first place.

So this term, step away from the training presentation and look at your wider communications strategy which entices students into the room in the first place. Is accessibility at the heart of your aims, for participants and potential student leaders?

If not, it might be time to look twice at your materials and consider what else your team can do to bring more students on their journey with you.

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