Meeting students where they are is at the heart of engagement, so we went back to the basics.
Like every institution during the pandemic, we moved teaching and activities online in September 2020. All the usual contact points had disappeared, and we were grappling with the challenge of how to stay in touch with our students.
We were particularly concerned for our new students who had missed out on welcome activities, meeting personal tutors in person and getting to know our campuses and support services.
Initially, the university funded the students’ union to set up a calling project to check in with our first-year students in the first semester – asking them about their programme experience, any challenges they experience and support we might be able to offer, outlining the difference services available. The calls were well received by students giving them an opportunity to chat to a peer, learn about new opportunities and keep them connected to the university community. Many students noted how much they appreciated having the chance to speak openly to another student with many feeling isolated from friends while studying online.
Fast forward two years and the project – now in its third year – calls all undergraduate and postgraduate students over all three terms. The scale of this task is not to be underestimated: during the last academic year, we made 53,994 calls to 21,404 individual students and completed 8,615 check-ins.
If the student raises an issue on the call that the student caller cannot resolve, the student is referred to the relevant university service within one day of the call to ensure they receive timely support. Linking students to the right support when they need it and encouraging them to get involved with wider students’ union activities is a key focus of the project for us to increase the sense of belonging, counter feelings of loneliness and increase retention. Of the students who completed the check-in call last year, 97% continued their studies.
Of course, we prioritise checking in with students who have missed classes so as to link them with support as early as possible to help them re-engage with their studies. And as the project has grown, we’ve become increasingly agile, proactively supporting students impacted by current events. During the last academic year we were able to call our Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi students to support them as international developments at home may have made it difficult for them to engage in their studies.
The calls not only allow us to have a bespoke check-in with each student, but they also give us wider insights into current student issues which enables us to take pre-emptive action in developing support for specific student groups.
Partnership and empowerment
The key to success for such a large call operation? The first is having student staff at the forefront of the operation – allowing students vital peer support and space to speak freely to their peers about their experience and concerns, facilitates community belonging, and empowering them to take the lead on their collective community wellbeing. The second is a strong working relationship between the students’ union and the university. From initial funding and training to data sharing agreements and the referral process, this project wouldn’t be possible in the same way without our two organisations working closely together with mutual trust.
We realise that not everyone reading this may have the funds to set up a large-scale call operation tomorrow, but the underlying principle remains – meet students where they are, understand their experiences and act on the insights.
When planning our inventions, our starting points are:
- Work with your students’ unions: Can they deliver this project for/with you? Can you support them in building the capacity to do so?
- Don’t wait on perfect systems and processes to be in place – The perfect system does not exist!
- Be flexible – One size rarely fits all.
- Resources: Start small if funding isn’t available initially.
- Co-creation from start to finish: Develop, deliver and review the intervention with students.
- Co-creating solutions: Don’t just ask about the issue, ask about the solutions and what would work best for your students.
- Think about impact reporting and stakeholder engagement from the start: What data do you need, what do you want to demonstrate, who needs to know, who can action any changes?
- Turn it into business as usual – It’s all about permanent culture change.
- If you still don’t know where to start on the university side: Use the student staff you already employ and ask for ideas, and employ more of them to make your services truly student-centric.