This article is more than 1 year old

Lessons from advice: building a picture of the student experience

This article is more than 1 year old

Imogen Charvill-Ryall is Student Adviser at Durham SU

When I began researching for this piece, I found it interesting that the last article on Wonkhe about students’ union advice services is titled, “the secret life of a students’ union advisor”.

Obviously, the concept that the details of advice casework should remain firmly behind closed doors is a sensible one – we work in a confidential space (for good reason) and protecting the identities of students is crucial to retaining the trust of our clients. But does that mean that we should lead “secret lives”?

My view is that this notion of advisors staying quiet about their work goes far beyond what is necessary – and can have a harmful effect on the knowledge that is shared about what is really going on in students’ lives. and the impact we can have to change it.

What (who) are we protecting?

My suspicion, confirmed through speaking to other advisors, is that this is partially linked to GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) legislation – introduced in 2015, these laws suddenly put a lot of pressure on organisations across the sector to be super careful about what we do with client data.

Particularly in relation to advice work, where sensitive information (including special category data) is being shared all the time, you can understand where this extreme cautiousness has come from. But what kind of information should advisors be sharing, with whom, and how?

Many advisors have already been doing a great job of sharing their insights for many years, and have continued to adapt and optimise their processes over time to make them more efficient. At the last Membership Services Conference in 2019, I watched a compelling presentation that was co-delivered by one of the advisors at Staffordshire University Students’ Union, Ralph Hayward. In it Ralph discussed Staffs SU’s particular approach to social policy issue reporting – and suggested ways that advisors can customise in-house case management platforms (like AdvicePro) to do most of the hard work for us.

In fact, Staffs SU began their social policy issue reporting as far back as 1998, and have gradually built their influence to a point where they are sharing those reports not just internally with elected student officers, but with key stakeholders across the university community. They ended their presentation with a quote:

“we bet your influence will grow, but it might take a while.

During the pandemic, the need for effective reporting on advice trends became even more urgent, as Covid-19 began to impact the student population in a multitude of unexpected ways. At Durham SU, we noticed too late that our failure to effectively employ a robust system of social policy issue flagging before the pandemic hit meant that we did not take effective note of how many students had been signposted to the Student Support Fund, but had been deemed ineligible to access it. This kind of data would have provided valuable support for our wider work to improve access to the fund at a crucial time. As that old saying goes (thank you George Bernard Shaw), “a life spent making mistakes is better than a life spent doing nothing.” And so, I decided it was high time to do something.

I got issues

Social Policy Flagging and Reporting are administrative processes permitted within the functionality of many case management systems. A “Social Policy Issue” (fully customizable through a drop-down list on AdvicePro) is added to a given case as part of the usual logging process, and further anonymised details are provided if required, in order to track larger trends and student “stories”. Reports are then run as often as required, which can be provided to relevant stakeholders at the SU to support projects and campaigns, or further afield, with external members of university staff. One further development has been the introduction of an Advice Service Bulletin, where I analyse reports and communicate these insights once a month in a centralised place.

One example of success in this area was earlier this term – I noticed that there were multiple cases of students being called to attend academic misconduct panels within an unreasonable timeframe, in some cases being given less than 24 hours’ notice (where the relevant procedures specify a minimum of 5 working days). I then communicated this trend directly to our elected academic officers, who shared it with the academic registrar at the university. The problem was immediately rectified, as departments were reminded of their obligations, and we saw a positive impact within that same period of academic misconduct panels (no more similar cases came through the Advice Service).

What’s more, student “stories” obtained through more detailed (anonymised) reporting can be used to highlight the impact that the SU is having on students’ lives. This can build and improve relationships with students and the trust that they have in the work we do. I also hope that providing data to the University in key spaces will develop the trust that the university has in our stance on the big issues. Of course, the trends that we notice can also be communicated to NUS or other external organisations (such as the OIA), allowing these case insights to directly influence their lobbying work.

In this way, a more holistic and joined-up approach to social policy issue reporting can have a tangible impact on the lives of students, and nip problems in the bud at an early stage, before they escalate. And why stop there? Perhaps in the future we might see a similar approach working well in other areas of the SU’s work, for example in student opportunities teams?

If you would like to find out more about the approach we’ve taken to reporting on social policy issues, please contact me at

Imogen will present on these issues at this year’s Membership Services Conference, 10-11 Aug, Man Met SU

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