Revisiting our hot topic sessions | Part one

In this series, our Trustees share their reflections and summaries of the hot topic sessions they attended at the AUA Annual Conference earlier this year. In this instalment, AUA Chair Amanda Oliver discusses the hot topic she attended on ‘Enhancing student wellbeing through Social Prescribing’, whilst AUA Trustee Sara Corcoran reflects on Jon Baldwin’s presentation on ‘Learning and teaching re-imagined: A new dawn for Higher Education’.

Learning and teaching re-imagined: A new dawn for higher education

Jon Baldwin | Executive Director – Higher Education, JISC

It was a pleasure to welcome Jon Baldwin, (Executive Director Higher Education, JISC) back to AUA conference. He began by picking up a few key notes from Prof Sherer West’s opening plenary: underlining that we must never underestimate the contribution professional services make to our universities; prompting us to always remember that we’re here for the students; and highlighting how much teams matter.  Moving into the core of his presentation, Jon outlined the multidisciplinary, sector-wide work led by JISC over the last year, to review and support the sector, recognising the huge challenge that faced universities as we went into the pandemic.  

How do we bring the joy and serendipity of the real world delivery to the screen?

An initial report was produced in August and showed that a sector often characterised as slow-moving and conservative had proved itself to be hugely agile and responsive when it needs to be. A key message in that report was that the future of learning is blended. However, in 2020 what we saw was a move from predominantly face-to-face to online delivery. Social engagement was shown to be critical but missing. The report acknowledged the remarkable, extraordinary work done by the sector – but also highlighted that it hadn’t always created good pedagogy. 

A final report was issued in November, with a companion document setting out a strategy for 2030. The report includes seven challenges and nine recommendations for universities; all of which has landed well in the sector. Jon stressed that getting engagement with this shift in pedagogy is not optional: the academic role is shifting – has already shifted – to one based more on facilitation and content curation. The skill set for academic staff isn’t an either-or choice between face-to-face and online delivery skills – academic staff need to be able to deliver excellence in both.  

Jon reported discussions noting the investment that will be needed to deliver the strategy, but also highlighted the significant returns for recruitment, retention and achievement. He flagged that this would require an important mindset shift for university leaders – to focus on investment in digital estate rather than physical estate. But we have to understand that online learning is now fundamentally entwined with the wider learning experience – it’s not distinct. There are important issues to address in moving forward with this agenda. Not least, there is wide diversity in the technical confidence and competence amongst students and staff, and we should not assume high or low levels of literacy or engagement in any group. We need to ensure strong support for all. Perhaps the biggest challenge is digital poverty. This needs government intervention to support universities in addressing it. The current policy agenda around universities doesn’t suggest this will be forthcoming soon.  

In the Q&A session at the end of the presentation we had some excellent observations and questions, noting that some academic staff are really thinking about students’ engagement and not feeling so comfortable with simply delivering passive lectures, exploring how aligned are professional regulating bodies in their engagement with this agenda, and discussing engagement with change generally.  

I think most of us took away action points to get hold of the JISC reports and strategy and consider the challenges, provocations and recommendations included within them. For me, one of the most compelling questions to ponder: How do we bring the joy and serendipity of the real world delivery to the screen? Definitely still a work in progress! 

Sara Corcoran, AUA Trustee

Enhancing student wellbeing through Social Prescribing

Professor Carolyn Wallace | Health & Care Services, University of South Wales
Dr Mark Davies | Senior Lecturer, University of South Wales

Carolyn and Mark’s session discussed their HEFCW funded project, which hopes to evaluate enhancing student wellbeing, building resilience, and promoting new ways of working with a focus on social prescribing.  The aims of the project include reflecting on mental health and wellbeing of students in HE including challenges in academic progression; how HEIs can support students; and how social prescribing can support students on their learning journey in HE.

The intended outcome of the project is to deliver a structured approach for linking people with appropriate universities and resources. The social prescribing model has been developed with students in mind, focusing on what students have identified is important to them. The project has involved students, staff, and those organisations providing services for local communities associated with University of South Wales and Wrexham Glyndwr University. The evaluation commenced in March 2020 and will last for 18 months.

During the session, Carolyn and Mark introduced the concept of social prescribing and explained how they built a realist programme theory which uses data to focus on a student’s wellbeing issue and then through a series of interventions, connects the student with appropriate HEI resources or community assets to support their learning. An important element of this will be to ensure that the resources or services are accessible and offered to students in an environment where students feel comfortable.

The project involved group concept mapping with a view of widening access. Carolyn explained how they used group concept mapping, taking qualitative data to produce quantitative results, and how individual perceptions may differ depending on whether a student or staff member was asked a question. 78 students and staff were involved with this stage of the project. The results from the mapping were fascinating and are already shaping discussions about how to support student wellbeing in University of South Wales and Wrexham Glyndwr University. Furthermore, the group concept mapping findings are considered as a strong evidence base to inform services to be developed, refined, and potentially repurposed to support student wellbeing. This is positive, as increasing wellbeing for students and greater engagement with services are also intended outcomes of the project.

Amanda Oliver, AUA Chair

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