Going the extra mile for students

The student experience has long flourished at Bucks New University and looks set to continue well into the future, finds Gloria Moss

“My guiding principle,” says Ruth Gunstone, Director of Student Experience at Buckinghamshire New University, “has been to work on behalf of the student.” So whereas the notion of the ‘student experience’ is relatively new to much of higher education, Gunstone was an early advocate. In fact, in the 1970s, she and her colleagues helped develop the institution’s first Access to Higher Education course for students with no formal education and a smile crosses her face as she recalls the effects.

“This was such a fascinating life-changing experience for many of the students. One mature student with three children and only O-levels, obtained a first-class degree followed by a PhD. “In a case like this, you are the catalyst for untapping someone’s potential and the power for positive change is enormous.” 

How have things changed? Gunstone points out that in today’s market, students are showered with choice so they are interested in the wider experience that they are receiving at University. So, finding an institution that will teach sound academic skills is one thing but students are also very interested in other value-added elements in their environment, whether it is employability or clubs. 

At Bucks New University, extra-curricular activities including sports, clubs and societies are free as part of an initiative called ‘The Big Deal’ so students can spread their wings without needing to worry about the bank account. In fact, Bucks New University is the only university in the country to do this.

Other sources of innovation? Gunstone is from a performing arts background and so it is not surprising that she thought of balancing the drama of graduation – the denouement of the drama – with the excitement of a welcome for all freshers at the beginning of their period of studies. “One of the beauties of being a relatively small institution is that we can say ‘hello’ to all our new students in two sittings at our local theatre,” says Gunstone. 

“People can see that they have made the decision to join alongside many other people and that is quite a validating experience.

“Being welcomed by the Vice Chancellor and hearing inspirational stories from alumni – this year we heard from two graduates in Advertising: Creative who now have creative roles at Channel 4 – is extraordinarily motivating. That example together with every student having a more experienced student buddy helps people feel connected pretty quickly.” 

Beyond that, students have opportunities to feed into the system and help future students by gaining employment in a variety of capacities, whether it is as ‘Student Ambassadors’, ‘Enterprise Champions’, ‘Buddies’ or 
‘Freshers’ Helpers’, spreading a culture of service to others. This service continues into other areas of University life with students feeding into annual course reviews, validation processes and even staff recruitment. 

The benefits of student involvement? “It is a way of future-proofing our offer,” says Gunstone, “and ensuring that what we do is absolutely attuned to student expectations.” The fact that Gunstone and her Student Experience team is also responsible for the Library, Counselling Services, the Chaplaincy, Accommodation and the Student Charter proves that one can be sure that student feedback adds relevancy to all of these areas too.

In an era when many services are becoming more remote from the user, it is salutary to see that higher education can be so inclusive and personal. Moreover, Gunstone’s additional responsibility for student retention strategies makes eminent sense given the extent to which she has her finger on the student pulse.

So, the student experience has long flourished under Gunstone’s direction and looks set to continue well into the future.

Gloria Moss is Professor of Management and Marketing at Buckinghamshire New University. She is the author of the book Gender, Design and Marketing and has a new book coming out on the 28th November, entitled: ‘Why men like straight lines and women like polka dots’.

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