How can universities support the Covid-impacted student generation?

Connected, evidence-based decision-making is vital to ensure students get the educational experience they deserve

Students have had a torrid experience over the last 18 months or so and they have not, thankfully, been backwards in coming forwards about their experience. This is very useful when you are trying to work in partnership with students to develop the best teaching, learning and assessment for all students in rather trying and ever-changing circumstances.

Having reached the end of this academic year, the focus now is on the support they need to catch-up on anything missed as a result of lockdowns and government guidance, and preparation for September. My role, as I see it, is to facilitate connected decision-making across our university about how we deliver an excellent student experience, working with staff and the student body in an inclusive and egalitarian way, and, right now, support what we might term the Covid-impacted student generation.

The key aspect is the evidence-based, data-driven approach in which the student voice is absolutely central. No-one would argue against the student voice being core to university decision-making, but it is important that everyone in the institution is on the same page in terms of partnership working for the benefit of the student experience as we proceed.

However, it is the work we did pre-pandemic that has enabled us to respond effectively during it and this, I believe, brings important learning. An important part of what we do is governed by our student voice policy, published at the start of the 2019-20 academic year, which mandates us to work with our students, to hear and value their views and opinions about their studies, and their wider student experience, and how to respond to them. Our partnership working, as set out in the university strategy, is embodied in our student charter – a set of five core principles that staff and students felt they could sign up to.

The objective is to engage and empower members to adopt a role as agents of positive change… instead of simply raising issues for discussion at yet another committee

At Portsmouth we have developed an approach which sees the value of students in active collaboration to change the institution. For example, our student experience committee, which includes staff (drawn from academic and professional services teams) and student representation, has been refocused to act as a research group. The objective is to engage and empower members to focus on evidence, and adopt a role as agents of positive change to address matters and improve the student experience, instead of simply raising issues for discussion at yet another committee.

It is through this committee that our ‘Being, Belonging, Becoming’ group emerged. This group is working to ensure we plan learning, teaching and student experience for 2021-22 around students, and to enable students to catch-up on any missed opportunities. It brings together academic and professional services staff and the students’ union in a joint endeavour to plan, in an integrated way, the progression, pre-arrival, induction and transitions of our students and applicants.

We need to consider that not only new students starting at university in September 2021, many of whom have had a rather disrupted education at school or college in the last year, need to prepare for a blended approach to their learning and teaching due to the uncertainty around what restrictions may remain in place and what may happen regarding any new variants or spikes. It is necessary, too, to prepare for our second-year university students who need a different level of support for progression and transition than would be required in normal circumstances, as they have experienced a first year unlike their predecessors.

One area we are exploring is the skills or competencies that students may not have been able to achieve easily during the 2020-21 pandemic year as we switched between blended and online learning and lockdowns. In the school sector much has been made of catch-up for pupils. University students, who by the very nature of university learning and teaching are expected to undertake self-directed and independent learning, may not require remedial teaching, but they do need access to facilities and opportunities to practise their skills. Particularly students on courses in institutions like Portsmouth that pride themselves on providing a real-world based educational experience.

Ultimately all this links back to what we call our blended and connected approach to learning and teaching. Ensuring students feel a sense of belonging and connection makes a difference to their experience of higher education. This was key to our approach to delivering learning and teaching during the pandemic, and will be at the heart of our plans for 2021-22. As we look ahead, that community needs to be created via a variety of mechanisms, online and face-to-face, if it is to be robust enough to deal with any curve balls the pandemic may throw our way in the coming months, and respond to student feedback.

Dr Harriet Dunbar-Morris is dean of learning and teaching and a reader in higher education at the University of Portsmouth

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