Would you hang around on your campus?

Rhiannon Jenkins argues that the safer a student feels in their learning environment, the more they’ll take away from the teaching

Rhiannon Jenkins is a journalist and HE policy analyst

To some a “sticky campus” just sounds like the morning after a summer ball – but the Australasian concept might offer the answer to the Office for Students’ B2 conditions.

“Sticky campus” is a catch-all phrase for making university campuses synonymous with home for a student.

The central idea is about providing enough to persuade them to stay after lectures and labs to simply hang out and spend time (and, sometimes, money) somewhere where they feel they can be themselves.

Conceptually, it’s brilliant. All the research points to higher engagement leading to higher grades and being on campus regularly surely leads to better attendance.

Having a sense of community strengthens a student’s willingness to engage, boosts their outcomes and enhances their performance in securing and succeeding in graduate roles. A sticky campus is all about building communities and encouraging students to… stick around.

But post pandemic it can sometimes feel like we’re clutching at straws. As Eileen Pollard and Stephanie Aldred pointed out on the site last year, while imagined spaces are full of potential, they are limited by their very definition – imaginary.

Looking back

Incoming students don’t share the same memories of higher education that academics and staff do. They’ve spent the last three years of their educational journeys successfully working through fractured online communities – so even if they overcame the challenges of commuting or working long hours, it may be audacious for the sector to presume they’re seeking the same experience that used to be universally understood.

As the pedagogical landscape attempts to reflect the changed student learning journey, it also often seems prudent to invest more in the digital campus than the real one.

Without up to date digital infrastructure (even Blackboard is moving with the times now) mental health analytics won’t stand a chance of actually catching students before they slip through the net, and Turnitin won’t stand a chance against the growing monstrosity of AI.

It’s also true that we need to stop leaving distance learners behind. A digital campus, with the right investment, can provide a platform for inter-disciplinary interaction that finally gives DLs a chance to be treated the same as on-campus learners.

But institutions shouldn’t have to pick one or the other to prioritise. Both are needed.

In England, as updated conditions of registration and definitions of quality start to embed and be enforced, there’s an argument to be made that a sticky campus directly supports OfS’ B condition requirements.

Opportunities outside the classroom aren’t as routinely available at schools in lower socioeconomic areas – and it’s no secret that there’s a BAME satisfaction gap looking over the awarding gap’s shoulder.

A true sticky campus at university should offer equal opportunity to everyone, a home away from home, or, for some, simply a home they haven’t had before. The safer a student feels in their learning environment, the more they’ll take away from the teaching.

In turn, if a student finds a community at university, they might feel more inclined to remain in the research world, giving back to the institution that welcomed them in.

In spite of being traditionally (in the style of OfS) vague, the B2 condition requiring “adequate resources to support students’ engagement as well as academic performance” lends itself to a sticky campus. A comfortable student is more likely to be an engaged student and, strip away all the frills, a student on campus is only a conversation away.

No comms or insights team is going to say no to that opportunity – someone to grab right there, not just incentivise to click on their latest survey link. A finance team won’t mind the added income through commercial services either.

As such, “resources” in the regulatory framework doesn’t just mean textbook subscriptions and labs for its STEM students. It means resources that support students’ time out of the classroom too.

Needs and wants

It’s a given that students need study space on campus, both social and silent – but even in the new builds the atriums are often more expansive than the seating. Students also need (much more) affordable food to help them revise for exams and places to prepare rather than just heat up meals; and student groups and academic societies need space and funding to foster connections outside the confines of a lecture hall.

An accessible campus with labelled rooms that they know they’re allowed into would help (so many schools police classrooms so higher education settings should be free to roam and be obvious about it); and more events should be catered to the specific demographics on campus.

So many of the spaces that are there could be used better. A new build might be out of reach for many these days – but the repurposing of existing spaces with the right furniture, facilities and friendliness that make a student feel like they’re at home rather than on a field trip to a visitor’s centre is within our grasp.

The quality of students’ learning is always acknowledged when talking about the marketisation of higher education, and yet the student experience has been just as affected. As domestic fees stagnate and recruitment trends more and more towards the international market (in spite of Suella Braverman’s best efforts), it will only worsen.

But our campuses still tend to reflect conceptions about the university experience that are outdated. Too often, they’re catered towards communities that are already represented and engaged. The international students we’re encouraging need both tailored support and tailored space to allow for a positive student experience.

All sorts of money is thrown at welcome weeks and onboarding, and then the façade falls and students realise that the support they were promised was merely a tagline rather than a tangible system. But if sticky campuses are embraced, and the principles embedded across the entire experience, there becomes the opportunity to tackle the declining satisfaction rates across the board.

It may be that the original sticky campus can’t be built in a post-pandemic world that has gone too far down the work-from-home road to easily turn around. But this need not be dismissed on the basis that the Director of Estates says a new building will cost what we can no longer afford.

A truly sticky campus that provides opportunities to those who have never had them before isn’t just a nice addition to a brochure; it’s a necessity to ensure institutions are actually committed to not only widening participation through recruitment but closing the satisfaction gap too.

One response to “Would you hang around on your campus?

  1. “An accessible campus with labelled rooms that they know they’re allowed into would help (so many schools police classrooms so higher education settings should be free to roam and be obvious about it)”

    And there in lies one of the biggest problems when it comes to ‘feeling’ and actually being ‘safe’ on campus, being too accessible to outsiders, especially those who trick students into believing they are also students who’ve left their ID card in the building/halls. This has led to serious assaults, physical and sexual, on campus, along with theft of personal and University property. City Universities, as against those where the University is on the periphery or further out, are especially difficult to secure against such unwanted intrusion, those engaged in governmental research are also targets for ‘state actors’ which bring another dimension to the problem. Taught humanities subject buildings maybe relatively safe from a H&S perspective, buildings with chemical/physical/biological labs have many issues that makes induction and safety awareness essential.

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