From Tradition to Innovation: The Evolution of Student Support

Dr Andrew West – HE Consultant, Student and Academic Journey Specialist

We caught up with AHEP member and AHEP Consultant Andrew West to hear his thoughts on student affairs, support and services.  Andrew has worked in higher education for more than 30 years, specialising in the above areas. Throughout that time, he has been increasingly involved in chairing various committees and groups within our Association, and again on the board of Trustees. He also served as vice chair of the AUA for a year.

Following retirement, he became a strategic advisor to the Association for a period and was heavily involved in establishing AHEP Consulting, of which, he was the first managing consultant. He has retained his membership since he was hired and has been operating as a consultant in the sector over the last few years, working with more than 30 or so different universities in different parts of the UK.

Looking back on more than three decades of work in HE student affairs, I’d like to reflect on three macro-level trends which I’ve seen evolve over the years, and which continue to develop in the sector.  These relate to the purpose of student affairs; the organisation of student affairs; and the impact of student affairs.

Reflecting on Purpose

One key change I’ve seen over my career is what you might describe as  a re reimagining of student affairs from thinking  in terms of a set of administrative or support services (like student hardship or disabled student support) towards understanding that student services form a core contribution within the overall academic experience and students’ learning journey.

This shifting focus encourages a much more strategic approach to student services. Rather than seeing student support in terms of a set of interconnected or sometimes disconnected services with a very operational focus, universities now  typically map out much more clearly what you might describe as the ‘ecosystem’ of student affairs and how it all fits together. 

A significant influence in the profession globally, was a publication called ‘Learning Reconsidered’, which came out in 2004, issued by the American student affairs organisation NASPA. Learning Reconsidered frames student learning using a broad definition – incorporating all student services, student support and student affairs activities. This reinforces the purpose of student services to support students in their learning and as an integral part of that learning.

Organisational Trends in Student Affairs

The opportunities arising from centralisation or localisation is prompting some interesting thinking around the best way to deliver services for students. Taking disability support as an example – you have a group of colleagues who have a considerable amount of professional expertise, so it makes sense to group them together, as it were, at the centre of the university. Everybody can access them and it’s relatively straightforward to run.

Or, by contrast, is it more sensible to push these professionals ‘out’ and locate resources out into what you might say is in reality the centre of the university (in other words, academic departments, schools, faculties). Are you better servicing students’ needs where they’re physically located? Students don’t come to university for the purpose of visiting a disability office, they come to university to learn. So, put the services where they are, rather than requiring students to come to us (physically or virtually).

Evaluating Impact

It’s possible to put forward a strong argument that student services and student support is all about people. The important thing is that we’re there to provide support to individual students and groups of students and this is fundamentally to do with human interaction – it’s a humanistic endeavour.

Or, on the other hand, should we focus rather more on the reality that underlying student services is data. And unless we better understand what we’re doing in terms of the trend lines – the delivery of services, the monitoring of what we’re doing, getting behind the data, we won’t be able to offer the right services for students, we’re constantly playing ‘catch up’ and we won’t be supporting students effectively.

We need to harness digitisation to maximise our professional skills and to best service students in their learning. We should know what works and what doesn’t. We should use that data and that insight to inform our professional development, the delivery and development of new services, our resourcing decisions, and also to foster the use of those services among the student community. The development of skill sets such as data analysis amongst colleagues who work in student affairs, wasn’t at all common at the start of my career and in some respects still isn’t very well developed.. It’s one of the areas where we have a longer distance to travel as a student services professional community and we certainly have more to do.

I’d be interested to hear AHEP members’ thoughts on where their university sits in these three student affairs mega-trends – purpose, organisation and impact- and what more could be done to enhance their students’ experience. 

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