The report published last month by Wonkhe in partnership with Pearson is as important as it is timely.
In setting out the four aspects which form the foundations of belonging for students in higher education, distilled from quantitative and qualitative research conducted over a year, it provides staff with very practical steps to improve what can be considered a crucial yet somewhat amorphous aspect of the student experience.
Caring without being cared for?
A notable observation in the report, while acknowledged as outside the remit of the research, is a brief commentary addressing the staff’s experience. The authors note that while academics and professional services members were not explicitly asked to provide an account of their own sense of belonging and inclusion, the open survey yielded revealing responses. The cultural and systemic concerns that were expressed highlight a salient issue: how can we expect staff to be fully committed and able to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion in students if their personal experience at their institution proves limited?
Introducing: The Academic Salon
Our calendars are packed with meetings for those working in higher education, whether as academics or professional support staff. From high-level strategic discussions to forums aimed at assisting our professional development, there is no shortage of staff assemblies of one description or another.
Yet what can frequently be missing from institutions is a space where staff can discuss matters of personal concern. The performative and perfunctory nature of most meetings often does not allow for personal experiences to be aired or given extended consideration.
It’s refreshing to be able to discuss meaningful issues affecting the academic community without the distraction of a fixed agenda. The salon provides an environment which is, by the same token, invigorating, cathartic, therapeutic and developmental.
The situation for student-facing staff is arguably particularly acute – in 2022, more so than it already was. With this in mind, I launched the Academic Salon at Bloomsbury Institute London. Conceived specifically for teaching staff, the aim is to provide a space for academics to have exchanges pertinent to their everyday experience of delivering a student-facing service. Standing in a classroom has its unique challenges, and lecturers bear the brunt of every facet of student dissatisfaction, even if entirely unrelated to their sphere of influence. While the notion of a student as a customer engenders endless debate, in an age of high tuition fees, students’ expectations and demands are unquestionable, with the attending pressures on academics an inescapable fact of teaching in higher education.
Creating an appropriate container
The idea of a salon is taken from the gatherings as they existed in the 17th and 18th centuries, whereby those engaged in intellectual or artistic pursuits congregated to have inspiring discussions on subjects of interest, often in the host’s reception room (hence the name salon).
Underlying the concept is the aim of knowledge acquisition through discourse. At the Academic Salon, staff are not addressed through presentations, nor is any single attendee expected to deliver content. Staff are encouraged to participate in a conversation that is illuminating and instructive – the provision of light refreshments aids in creating a welcoming environment.
Further, house rules are set up to create a container for the interaction and distinguish it from other social encounters. At the outset, staff attending are reminded to be courteous and present with each other and to interact in the same way we would ask our students to when engaging in sensitive discussions. Only one person at a time should speak, and attendees are invited to listen with the intention of understanding rather than replying. Attendees are requested to become aware of their presence’s impact and take ownership of the energy they are projecting.
I feel our (…) discussion had a bit of a therapeutic effect – on me, at least! The subject we shared our thoughts and experiences on had never been properly brought to the fore and had never gone beyond private and informal rants between colleagues. This sort of acknowledgement that some subjects need recognition and are worth taking seriously is very reassuring.
While gatherings may not run perfectly, and attendees sometimes must be reminded of the rules of engagement, it works well. Several staff members have noted the beneficial effects of participating in the Academic Salon due to being able to voice and be heard on complex topics. Subjects discussed so far have been wide-ranging, from how to deal with challenging behaviour in the classroom to the appropriate use of compassion and discipline, as well as the particular challenges faced by female and/or ethnic minority staff.
One of the primary aims of launching this initiative was to foster a sense of connection between teaching staff. Interestingly, Wonkhe’s report identifies connection as one of the foundations of belonging and an essential building block in developing confidence. As such, the authors recommend facilitating peer connections for students during scheduled contact hours so that the design and delivery of courses include initiatives to connect students during the semi-structured time.
Similarly, the Academic Salon is designed to take place during office hours. It is crucial – and in keeping with the distinctions made in the report – to distinguish community from friendship, and the latter forms organically and cannot be imposed.
An inability to socialise outside of scheduled hours presents a barrier for some staff to interact in a personal capacity with each other, and the report found this to be the case for students as well for almost the same reasons. These can be varied, but to provide an example, for those with caring responsibilities, who live at a distance, or who have specific cultural and social considerations, an alcohol-fuelled evening at the pub may not be either feasible or appealing. As such, the absence of opportunities for connection during office hours can present a definite obstacle regarding diversity and inclusion in the workplace for staff. The context of having a semi-formal setting gives purpose to a gathering while further demanding institutional acknowledgement of a need and resource allocation for such spaces.
Filling a need – making an impact
Students entering higher education have experienced significant disruptions to their prior learning due to the pandemic. Mental health needs are spiralling, and the pressures of a cost-of-living crisis weigh heavy against the backdrop of climate emergency and widespread political turmoil on the minds of domestic and international applicants. Demonstrating faith in their future by committing to a course of study is a more powerful act than we give them credit for. In the interest of our students, who deserve us at our best, staff needs and concerns must be made as much a priority as theirs.
The impact of having a dedicated space for the staff voice is directly measurable: matters raised at the Academic Salon at my institution have been brought to the attention of the board of directors and human resources, triggering the review of relevant internal policies and procedures. While the Salon is currently designed for academics only, ensuring an inclusive space through a level of exclusivity, future developments would include its equivalent for professional services staff.
[T]he initiative and skill with which (…) the space for the Academic Salon was convened (…) was valuable on many levels and I really hope it can be sustained, strengthened and supported. It provided a trusted, relaxed and important space to talk about inclusion in what can be described as a safe space and I hope it can be further developed.
Seeing my concerns noted in the Wonkhe report and reiterated at the launching event has been heartening. Every institution should continue putting the well-being of their staff on the agenda of management and leadership teams, remembering that we cannot give what we do not have.