Friday 05-08-2016 - 15:00
Ahead of their session on the importance of ‘direct conversations and proactive interventions’ at this month’s Membership Services Conference, Andy Irwin and Matthew Myles-Brown explain why UWLSU decided to shake up the way they offered students advice.
What inspired UWL to rethink the functions and principles of its advice service?
Our strategy, to put it simply. The Advice Service wasn’t reaching its potential in terms of delivering wide-reaching interventions for students, and we had been running a large-scale ‘Direct Conversation Project’ that had so much potential in terms of what we could do with the data but the project needed a re-think.
We knew that we had the right people on board, and we knew that retention and satisfaction were the right things to focus our attention on, what we needed to do was develop new ideas in the team to increase retention and satisfaction at UWL.
What was the starting point?
In 2014 we began the Direct Conversation Project at UWL and we collected views from over 95 per cent of new starters both years since.
At this point, we were trying to understand our students better in order to identify priority areas of work. Now, we’re very much in the mindset of what we can do with the data we gather from our students.
The focus for the advice team this year is to drive engagement by delivering proactive interventions at key points throughout the academic year rather than waiting for students in crisis to approach.
Was there any hesitation or resistance towards this new approach in the initial stages?
Not really resistance as such because we all have clarity on our 2018 Strategy. Any hesitation was the result of taking the time to make sure we were asking the right questions to inform our annual business planning process.
We’ve made embedding evidence-led practice an organizational priority and so we’ve become really good as an organisation at challenging one another and driving one-to-one conversations with students.
We put a lot of resource into that because the evidence tells us that our students respond well to direct conversations – who knew: students want to be talked to!
What were the biggest challenges and culture shocks along the way?
We think the biggest challenges are still to come in this project if we’re completely honest.
Delivering interventions and advice to 50 per cent and then 65 per cent of our student body in the next two years is a huge challenge but one that we are very excited about.
This project also fundamentally means we’re redefining what it means to give advice to our students.
We’ve built a culture of coaching and challenging at UWLSU which means that we’re confident of all being on the same page when we approach a big, union-wide project such as this one.
What impact has this had on engagement and outreach between the SU and its students?
We’ve engaged 95 per cent of our current second and third years as a result of our approach to one-to-one conversations in the past two years, so that’s a very big number in terms of basic reach and we’re confident we’ll do the same during induction this year again.
The number of students engaging in our membership opportunities has increased dramatically over the past two years. Over the next two years, we’re confident that we’ll be able to measure the impact of our interventions on overall retention at UWL.
How far away are you from your end goal?
Hopefully, two years! We are now halfway into our 2018 Strategy. We’re really excited about where we are and we are going to talk about where we are in terms of satisfaction during our session at Membership Services Conference.
In Team Advice, we have to deliver advice to 50 per cent of UWL students this year, and 65 per cent next year in order to meet our KPI, we also have to more than double our caseload in that time.
That’s a huge undertaking, but we are prioritising proactive interventions and institutional relationships in the next two years in order to drive engagement and deliver for our students.
When we run our session, we’ll be highlighting that the Direct Conversation Project hasn’t had massive financial resources at its disposal, rather we have been really focused in our planning and purpose and that has allowed us to achieve more than we might otherwise have done.
What lessons did you learn along the way and what would you suggest to peers looking to do something similar? In hindsight, is there anything you’d avoid/ do differently?
We’ve learnt that you have to have absolute clarity in your strategy and your plan for how you will meet it, you have to trust it.
Our 2018 Strategy asks all of the right questions for where we are as a students’ union, but I think it took time for us to systematically refer to the strategy and our work plans as a matter of habit – I think Matt and I can both relate to that.
We moved to the next level when we started saying, “actually, I know we’ve planned to do this but why are we doing it?” When we learned to constantly evaluate where we are with a piece of work and make calls about what we can drop to give us more time to concentrate on priority areas – that’s when we started to notice a difference in our work.
On a broader point, advice services in modern universities like ours need to act more like outreach programmes.
There is a lot of research to suggest that students from low participation backgrounds won’t ask for help, even though they might need it most – so a proactive advice service is the only way we can have a real impact on retention.
You can find more about UWLSUs Advice Service online here.