Over the past few days, sunny Brighton has been the home of student services staff from across the UK. The Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education (AMOSSHE) is hosting their annual conference.
This year the conference is titled “360 degree thinking” and aims to at look at the student experience from all angles and perspectives. It seems an apt theme for such a diverse profession within higher education. One delegate told me that the only two constants of student services were counselling and disability support; the venue was full of a much wider range of roles from finance support to careers advice.
Though student services work at the coal face of higher education, they can often feel overlooked in the high level policy debates around the recent Higher Education and Research Act, TEF, and tuition fees. The impact of these policy decisions are only just beginning to be felt for student services staff. However, in a brief moment of calm post-election, the conference is a timely opportunity to reflect on the fundamental role student services will play in an increasingly uncertain future.
The day kicked off with some energetic networking sessions, which gave me an opportunity to meet delegates. It struck me that so much technology was on display and everyone was keen to investigate it. As student services come under increasing pressure to support a more diverse student body with limited resources, they are looking for ways to offer a more student centric approach. Being accessible 24/7, making information easier to access, and providing greater personalisation of services are top of the agenda. Technology can provide some of these solutions, but one clear message came through from those I talked to: automation cannot replace the valuable role of the human touch in student services.
In the afternoon we heard from two keynotes, Lee Elliot Major from Sutton Trust and Will Hammond from UUK. Lee talked to us about the realities of social mobility and the role of education. Some of the statistics provided a shocking wake up call to me, but for AMOSSHE members they were all too aware of all the challenges we face around social mobility. The message was clear, social mobility is far from mobile. It isn’t just about getting students into university anymore, it’s about helping them get on in wider society too, and this is a critical role that student services must play.
Will Hammond from UUK was speaking in place of Nicola Dandridge, who had been appointed Chief Executive of the Office for Students that morning., He provided what can only be described as an impressive whistle-stop tour of higher education policy. Will explained that it is still very unclear how the recent Act and the Office for Students will actually work. Yet there are opportunities for student services. Dandridge’s appointment at the OfS, is likely to keep social mobility high on the agenda. And a recent UUK report on what students want from their university found that 91% of those who felt university was good value for money particularly valued their relationship with their university. The personal relationship a student feels with their university seems integral to success, and student services are often the ‘friendly face’ of an institution.
The remainder of the day was filled with workshops from AMOSSHE members, sharing good practice, discussing challenges, and encouraging innovative new approaches. The passion from all attending was infectious. There is no ‘moan and groan’ atmosphere, but instead a feeling that everyone can make a difference, not just for students but for wider society as well. With a sector that never sits still for long, there are growing opportunities for student services to have their voice heard in the policy debate.
You can follow the rest of the conference on twitter: #Amosshe2017