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Interview: Risk & Student Experience with Shakira Martin

by | Apr 2, 2020 | Strategy & Transformation

Shakira Martin is Head of Student Experience at Rose Bruford College. Before that, she was President of the National Union of Students UK. She’s also a Consulting Fellow for Halpin and a member of our Advisory Group. A few weeks ago Olivia Dunn caught up with her to ask her about risks within student experience. Here’s what she had to say:

What are the risks to a university if you get the student experience wrong?

The risks to getting student experience wrong are around student retention – it’s that progression route for students to be able to continue and potentially progress into the next thing that they want to do.

Also, reputation is a risk. We talk about the power of education and how it transforms life, but if a student’s experience is one that is negative/unhelpful, it can change the way that they view education for the rest of their life. It’s not just about getting students in, but also about getting them on, and that means giving students the support that they need to reach their full potential. Student experience support may vary from institution to institution, and from student to student – but a safe and comfortable environment and community with resources and support is really important.

What risks are students most concerned about?

Pound in the pocket. This was a key priority for me during my time at NUS and it’s still a priority for me now I’m at Rose Bruford. Money is a barrier to students accessing and continuing education. There are students who can’t afford to eat or whose circumstances have changed – or they need mental health and wellbeing provision. The debate around value for money is important – are we getting what we expect for our £9,250?

What are the risks around increasing student expectations?

Increasing student expectations is a positive thing, but there’s a risk if it’s done in isolation without allowing students to be a part of creating what their expectations look like. If a commitment to student experience is only done from the top, rather than co-created with students, staff and management, then there are going to be hiccups along the line.

We may work in the education sector, but we are not living the life of a student so it’s really important to put your ear to the ground and develop a tangible framework that everyone can believe in and benefit from.

What are the risks if you don’t invest in student experience, and what impact does that have on equality, diversity and inclusion?

We need to be honest and say that in the current social and political climate there is a huge number of students with complex mental health needs. Institutions are picking up on issues at crisis point when problems are already manifested, with multiple issues and layers on top of that.

There needs to be a proactive commitment from people at the top in order to support students in this area, and it’s going to require investment. We know that access and widening participation is a priority for OfS and that having students with multiple issues and needs is going to be at the cost of the institution.

But if we are serious about widening the pool of students that go to university, eliminating the attainment gap and increasing the number of disabled students (whether that’s neuro-diverse or physically diverse), that investment needs to be there. Without that commitment and a ringfenced budget it’s just another barrier to students. They may get in, but they won’t get on and get out.

That means making tough decisions at the beginning, to avoid future issues that would cost the institution money anyway. Instead of being reactive, let’s put the money in up front and nip problems in the bud at the start.

Students aren’t a homogenous group, so how can we understand a diverse group’s expectations and needs?

My line is “listen, learn and lead”. So, first, put your ear to the ground and hear people’s voices. BAME/black students aren’t one harmonious group, so one focus group isn’t going to be representative. We need wider consultations with different groups and organisations within a sector – whether that’s charity, school, colleges, community groups – carry out focus groups with different equality groups in different areas. You have to dig deeper to get a true understanding and to build a strategy that will be effective, efficient and relevant to those who need it.

At times there are ‘sexy’ diversity buzzwords or themes that are mentioned at conferences or by sector bodies. They’re easy to talk about, but is it lip service or are we serious about it? Institutions need to reflect on the integrity of where they are coming from, because if it’s a truly commitment then they need to back it up with the resources and money to do it.

What aspects of the student experience are most at risk in your view?

Student support and student services. It’s clear and I’ve felt it being in an institution – students are coming in with more complex needs. But these may be the students that allow us to reach other targets in other areas of our participation plan.

The stretch on institutions as a whole to be teachers, social workers, mediators and counsellors etc. because of the complexity that students are coming with is very challenging. This is not only because of money and funding but also because of the burden that it has on staff – it’s not that staff don’t want to help students, but their teaching roles are different to pastoral ones, and at the moment they are expected to support students with MH and wellbeing because it’s presenting in their lessons.

It all comes back to money. We talk about the poverty premium – we have to be honest and realistic and acknowledge that a student with multiple learning needs/experiences/challenges is going to come with a cost. But that investment is worth it if you are breaking the cycle of deprivation.

It’s a university’s civic duty to empower people to become better citizens. That means we must support those who are worse off or have complex challenges and do so proudly. But money doesn’t grow on trees, so there has to be a louder conversation with the government around prioritising funding for mental health, wellbeing and student services.

These conversations are happening, but we need continuity – and we don’t get that when university ministers with different visions (and often no expertise/knowledge/passion for education) are swapped in and out on a regular basis. It has a domino effect and it’s disrespectful to the sector. Lack of continuity at a governmental level makes progress slow. Every time a new minister arrives we have to amend and change our strategic plans accordingly – and this causes huge issues and delays on the ground.

What role do students’ unions play in enhancing student experience and what risks are they facing?

Students’ Unions are crucial to the student experience and representation because they are the ones that are living the experience of being a student. They know what it’s like on the ground and how politics etc effects their learning experience. NUS has been saying it for years, but we need to have support officers within Students Unions. At Rose Bruford for example, because of the specialist nature of the college the learning and contact hours are a lot. Students may not want to take a year out of their acting career to become a student officer. But the risk is that students’ unions are not being respected and valued as much as they should be. They should be seen as a stick rather than a carrot. I would rather have my students’ union tell me what’s wrong about my institution than be told by a rival/competitor.

When it comes to smaller institutions, what are the particular challenges and risks/opportunities?

I will always love and champion FE and I’ll always stand up for it, but being in a smaller specialist institution I have learned that because FE is underfunded and undervalued, we don’t have any scope to get it wrong. We don’t have that breathing space and I don’t think the regulators understand that – we are being judged against huge institutions. There’s something about parity of respect, resources and capacity there, for me. But we aren’t deterred – our leadership is gutsy, and we’re committed to diversifying the industry and widening the demographic of students going into the arts.

And your final thoughts on student experience?

Student experience mustn’t be taken lightly. It’s make or break for students. It’s the difference between them finishing their course, or not. Bouncing the term ‘student expectations’ around is great, but if it’s just lip service and we get it wrong then we can directly or indirectly affect people’s lives. It’s personal, and it’s really important to me.

Shakira Martin is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in higher education.