Our series of Talking Student Engagement interviews has always been a great way to share practice and talk about the great work going on across the sector to support and develop student engagement. In light of the current situation, we know that institutions are facing challenges unlike ever before. As such, we want to reach out to staff and student officers to find out more about recent developments that institutions are working on to continue to support and promote student engagement in response to COVID-19.
In this interview, we speak to Professor Tim Whalley, Dean for Student Experience at the University of Stirling.
1. Firstly, can you tell us a little bit more about your role at the University of Stirling?
This role has many aspects to it and the role has evolved with time. It includes work on all facets of the student experience, including student voice and evaluation, the development of academic and pastoral support, work on recruitment and retention, and widening access and articulation. I chair our Student Experience Committee, which has a membership including the executive directors of our professional services as well as academic staff and students’ union sabbatical officers, whose purpose is to provide oversight of university strategy and planning in the area of the student experience and to ensure that cross-institutional planning is maintained in respect of key objectives and desired outcomes.
However, I do lots of teaching still, and I think that is really important in ensuring that I keep an ear to the ground. I speak with students enrolled in my modules all the time, before and after classes, and at other times too of course, and that helps me to understand what being a student at the University of Stirling is really like, what are the facilities like in action and are developments that we put in place actually effective and transformational in a positive sense? I also speak to other students frequently, both at formal events and informally, and I have frequent meetings with the union sabbatical officers, particularly the Union President and Vice President Education.
2. We know that staff and student officers are working really hard right now to support student representation structures; can you tell us more about the recent work you’ve done at Stirling alongside the students’ association?
The last year and a bit have been incredibly challenging across the sector, with several instances of industrial action, and of course the COVID-19 pandemic. At Stirling we had an additional challenge with a once in a century storm, which caused havoc on our campus. Many buildings were damaged really badly. All of these events had significant impacts on the student experience, all of them negative, and it has been important to ensure that students are engaged with the university in uncertain and difficult times. One of the main approaches that I used to ensure that students have been kept informed was to work with the students’ union and faculty representatives through a series of meetings. Before COVID-19 these were face-to-face, and in our meetings we discussed issues such as the impact of industrial action on teaching and assessment, etc. Since the pandemic, we have had a series of Teams meetings to discuss issues, and for me to explain some of the details of the university’s approaches to ensure that Spring semester was completed satisfactorily and that students graduated on time. For example, we operated a “no detriment” approach to grading, and there were many students who were not sure how this would operate in practice. I was able to ensure that the process was made clearer through these meetings, and faculty representatives then disseminated the information to all students.
3. Why did you feel it was important to do this? How have the student reps responded?
Obviously, it was really key to ensure that students were kept informed as to what was going on, especially as the pandemic really took hold when we were approaching the end of Spring semester and exam season. The unfamiliar and unusual can cause some consternation to anyone, and it was vital to make sure that it was made clear to our students that they would not be disadvantaged by all of the changes that the pandemic necessitated. The student reps really appreciated the opportunity to discuss matters with me, and were able to tell their students what was going to happen, and that the university was ensuring that their worries were unnecessary.
4. There are still a lot of uncertainties as to what learning and teaching might look like over the coming months and into the new academic year; what work is ongoing at Stirling and in your role to help support the challenges ahead?
There is a lot of work going on right now dealing with the huge number of changes made necessary because of the need for social distancing and safe working. Things are changing rapidly though, so our plans are evolving as those changes take place. The work is being led by our DP (Education and Students), together with the faculty Associate Deans for Learning and Teaching and myself. We also have a group of Academic Development staff and IT colleagues who are all playing a really significant role in changing how we deliver for our students. And, of course, the sabbatical officers of our students’ union are involved in our planning too. We are prepared for all eventualities I think, and much work is going on in preparing for delivering teaching using a blended learning approach. Our AD colleagues have put on a series of week-long courses “Supporting Online Learning and Teaching”, which have been well attended and aim to prepare academic colleagues to produce high-quality online provision.
One of the main challenges from my perspective is going to be to maintain student engagement when many of the usual routes to engagement and a sense of belonging have been fractured by the consequences of the pandemic. Clearly all colleagues with roles that interface with students will be important in creating the “Stirling Community” and enhancing and maintaining positive experiences for all of our students. To help with this, I have been changing the personal tutor scheme that we run for all of our students, to put more of a focus on engagement and community. That is also something that will, of course, be key in our teaching too, making sure that students do not feel isolated despite changes in the way that they experience university life. I’ve also been working on other ways to enhance engagement with our students and maintain the sense of community and belonging that are so important in a good student experience.
Thanks to Tim for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.
This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.