Concrete and committed – working together to build students’ confidence and success

For Liz Mossop and Talia Adams working together on a student futures manifesto is the right approach for Lincoln students

Liz Mossop is the Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln

Talia Adams is VP Education at Lincoln Students’ Union

Let’s be honest, there have certainly been turbulent times during the pandemic and relationships between universities and students’ unions have been tested to the max.

But despite many difficult conversations, with ropey Wi-Fi and multiple government declarations to interpret, working together has consistently helped us to navigate these challenges.

We shared very similar difficulties – new ways of working, personal and professional lives overlapping and above all the complications of hearing from our students. Having relied on face-to-face interactions to understand their views and input, significant challenges were faced in our new digital world.

It struck us very early on that by working even more closely than usual, we could support and help our students in the most efficient and effective ways during a time of adversity. We have subsequently been looking at ways to cement this relationship beyond the rounds of normal committee business – and so an opportunity to engage in the development of a Student Futures Manifesto seems to have come along at a good time.

Struggling students

Students have had an extremely tough time during the pandemic. Take the stressors that we all experienced and add in trying to study for a degree without the support of a physical university community and the impact is clear. It is also ongoing and we expect that we will continue to need to mitigate way into the future. Students have struggled to find their identities and “place” at university.

Working closely together since we returned to campus, we have been thinking a lot about reinvigorating our students’ sense of belonging and how we facilitate this through various activities and initiatives, to rebuild our community. The recent Wonkhe/Pearson report highlights things that may help – making friends, getting to know people on their course, meeting like-minded people and being part of a society.

These things may seem easy, but we are finding that we need to support students more than previously to achieve them and be clear to them of the importance of this aspect of their student experience.

Following a period of restriction how do we make choices (now we actually have some!) about the future of our student experience, and support that important sense of belonging?

Here at Lincoln we are currently writing our new university strategy and the rounds of conversations, presentations and debates have been a helpful way to consider what we have learnt and where we are going next.

Whilst these processes have certainly involved our students, we recognised early on that high level strategy is sometimes tricky to grasp and not always as exciting for students as we might think. We had already decided that one of our next steps would be to work with our students to interpret and apply the teaching and student experience elements of our main strategy. The UPP Foundation Student Futures Manifesto has given us a helpful and student-friendly framework by which to do this, and so we have pledged to work with each other to produce our version, which will link directly to our new strategy.

It is important to us that the process of developing our manifesto is not onerous for students (or staff!) and provides them with professional development opportunities, new networks and financial reward for investing their time. We are at an early stage with our plans, but we like the idea of student consultants leading the process with their peers, with appropriate support and training.

Our Teaching and Learning panels during the pandemic took a similar approach and proved a helpful way to provide colleagues with insightful feedback on plans from trained student experts.

The creation of our manifesto will provide us with another opportunity to do this.

Concrete and committed

We have decided that we like the term “manifesto” – it feels concrete and committed, and that is what we would like our students to feel about our co-produced approach to their experience. The six key themes are already familiar – pre-university support, induction for every year of study, mental health and wellbeing support, clarity of teaching approaches, activities to build skills and networks and clear pathways to graduate outcomes.

We must acknowledge sometimes these themes, which we know are so important to our students, can be buried in a multitude of policies and handbooks. We hope the manifesto will bring these priority areas to the fore, providing focus and purpose, with clear outcomes and direction for the next phase of our student experience.

We will aim for our manifesto to clearly set out our commitments within the six themes, and for this to be delivered in an engaging and accessible way, rather than buried on a website. It is an additional way for us to strengthen our relationship with each other and with our students, after such a challenging period of time, and as we head into preparations for the TEF. Above all, the process itself will help our students feel valued and a part of our community.

We have all felt “distant” during the last two years – physically and mentally – and the relief of returning to face-to-face activities and teaching was huge. Now we have some choices, which of course we hope will remain, we need to leverage our strong relationship and set out clearly what we are doing for our students now and in the future.

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