A year ago, I met with a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at a university renowned for its focus on the student experience. As we toured the campus, he told me the story of a group of students who had approached him with an idea: they wanted to set up a computer repair/IT help desk, staffed by students, in the library. The students were surprised by his quick approval of the plan. One asked, “Aren’t you worried we might inadvertently damage someone’s computer trying to fix it?” He replied, “If I have to spend £1000 on a laptop every now and then, that’s a small price to pay to support this great idea.”
I was reminded of this straightforward, clearheaded—even simple—approach to promoting a positive student experience at a recent UPP Foundation and WonkHE-sponsored panel discussion which posed the following question: Does the UK have a retention problem? Certainly, the event was timely. The latest HESA non-continuation statistics showing a decline in retention sector-wide (and especially for disadvantaged students) are of concern, or should be, to all connected to higher education.
The speakers tended toward yes (especially for non-traditional/underprivileged student cohorts) but varied in their opinions as to what should be done about it. What struck me, though, was what the various responses had in common: most of the proposed fixes were remarkably simple and straightforward.
Ross Renton, PVC Students at the University of Worcester, is a champion of the “keep it simple” approach. At Worcester, he’s implemented a scheme that ensures prospective students speak with a lecturer who teaches on their course before they enrol. This cuts through the marketing-speak and helps set appropriate expectations. And all it takes is one conversation.
Alex Proudfoot, Chief Executive at Independent HE, spoke about the importance of timetabling classes when working and commuting students can attend them. Simple but often overlooked. In the same vein, Renton proposed providing non-commercial spaces for students who don’t live in accommodation to congregate and converse outside of classes and lectures. Little things like this help non-traditional students overcome the feeling that the university experience is not for them.
Starfish, Hobsons’ student success platform, is built to empower the little things that research shows can make a huge difference in the life of a struggling student. Offering praise for work well done, scheduling a quick conversation with a student who appears distressed, nudging a student to attend lecture, giving students an easy way to self-refer—these are small actions that bond the student to the institution, engendering the sense of belonging we know leads to students staying on and completing their degrees.
Retention has big implications, especially in the age of the TEF and the coming emphasis on retention in the next OFFA access agreements. But the efforts and initiatives that comprise an institution’s retention strategy don’t have to be big to make a big difference.