How are universities and students’ unions engaging students this year?

On 29th October 2020, the AUA’s Student Experience and Engagement network held its second vidcon. Similar to our previous event that took place in July, this brought together representatives from dozens of universities and students’ unions across the UK to share how we’re approaching our work.

The two big topics of discussion in this event were:

  • Online student representation systems and student voice approaches
  • Building online student communities and student engagement

We hope all those who attended found the afternoon useful and for those who couldn’t attend, below is a summary of what was discussed. This is how universities and students’ unions are managing to engage students this year.

Below are comments from our participants. No names of institutions or SUs have been included. We hope that you find the below notes give you some ideas or at least reassurance that we’re all facing similar challenges.

Online student representation systems and student voice approaches

How are you recruiting your student reps for this academic year?

  • Some challenge in recruiting new reps, as we’re limited to online promotion
  • Whilst some institutions have asked for their existing reps to carry over, at most of the unis new reps had to be recruited, as the students from last year didn’t feel up to the task of continuing.

How are student representatives being trained?

  • At one institution, the academic rep team has organised an online conference and online training session trying to do it as engaging as possible
  • Specific training is being devised and delivered with more agility to students representatives than in the past
  • Some attendees expressed concern about their training for reps was taking too long – upwards of 2 hours. Some had training between 45 mins – an hour. The shortest training was 25-30 mins, but then with some additional conferences and specific training sessions through the year. Some institutions noted success when they had short upfront training sessions, with additional training sessions throughout the year  
  • One institution runs a course rep conference day that pulls everything together (and a free lunch). This year, they moved from a conference to a split of online sessions throughout the year
  • To encourage attendance and engagement with training, attendees noted free hoodies, points on student achievement records, free entry to student nightclub, student discounts at the campus shop and LinkedIn recommendations / endorsements as examples of benefits and incentives
  • On SU brought in a learning management system and created a ‘recognise’ awards – so that all staff and reps could track the learning and training that they do through their role.

How has engagement with student representatives changed?

  • Students feel more free to have their say, as with the online technology they can utilise side chats if they don’t feel confident to speak
  • Some institutions have noted attendance at staff-student meetings has increased
  • One students’ union organised a Big Rep Forum in conjunction with university open to all students which saw a high turnout
  • There is more interest this year from senior staff in student representatives
  • Staff have found it easier to run parallel sessions on different days and times to appeal to more students
  • There has been an increase in the number of international students taking on the role of student representative, perhaps as a useful way to meet new people in a world where socialising is more difficult.

How are you running your meetings with student representatives?

  • On Teams and Zoom, a mixture
  • Students prefer Zoom as they use it in their own time too (to meet friends)
  • Reps communicate to the students in their own way, attendees mostly agreed that there is no need for staff members to get involved. However, on institution has set-up virtual common rooms on Microsoft Teams – which link reps with their students. These are auto populated from student records data and staff are not present
  • There is a huge benefit in not needing to book rooms and find space on campus for these additional meetings
  • Multiple institutions noted creating spaces on Teams to communicate with all of their reps at the same time.

What other platforms of methods do you have for online student voice work?

  • One SU was going to bring in a new student voice platform, but it was scrapped for staff wellbeing reasons. Their senior management team felt it was one too many new things for staff to have to manage
  • One institution were running Enlightened – A Student Room pilot – but that was then closed. This was a pulse survey tool within an app, so students could answer questions  on an ongoing basis (related to the NSS question set)
  • One SU has created survey superheroes – which is essentially a series of monthly pulse surveys that students can fill in. Students get £2 per survey, which builds up through the year and then they get a voucher at the end.

Building online student communities and student engagement

How has engagement been so far with any on campus events that you’ve tried to organise?

  • Meetings with academic advisers were the only events on campus for one institution – and they got higher engagement with those academic adviser meetings than previous years. They then found that online event attendance was pretty poor for their wider School events – either on academic subjects or more social ones
  • One SU has been running on campus events, but the attendance has been really low. Movie marathons, yoga, cook-a-longs. It seems that it doesn’t matter whether it’s online or in-person… the engagement isn’t there
  • One university run an outdoor cinema (but it rained a lot!) and two others had marquees with social distanced stalls (like a Freshers’ fair)
  • One attendee’s institution streamed live music, organised speed meets and organised tutorials on crafts
  • One institution is running on campus pumpkin carving and that has had over 100 signups.

What about engagement with online events?

  • Challenges of lots of ideas for online events – but lots of them just getting very little or no attendance
  • The competition with online engagement is so much higher – we’re up against Netflix and Xboxes now
  • One institution found that online events were well engaged by new students at the beginning of Freshers, but then quickly slowed down and have had poor attendance since. Engagement with returning students for events has been particularly low. The only things that they’ve engaged with so far was a careers festival we ran online – which got much higher engagement than previous years
  • A mixture of feedback with regards to whether online careers events are getting good engagement. Some places have had high engagement… some have had lower than they would have had in previous years. One fed back that at their careers event, students were more nervous about going into 1:1 conversations with their employers than they might have been in person in previous years
  • One university organised to have a team of student ambassadors who run “Study with me” and “Wellbeing sessions”. However, only 4 or 5 students showed up. Usually they would have it in person, but because of the situation, it was online
  • One of the main issues is time zones, as they result in a decrease in engagement as some international students cannot attend these events
  • To deal with ‘screen fatigue’, one institution is planning to launch podcasts for their students. They also run a casual ‘cafe’ style event every Friday for an hour where mature students across the uni can join one another for a natter and to meet new people
  • One institution is trying to just create zoom rooms for students to come together, both with and without staff present.

Noticed any trends with engagement more generally?

  • There is a big division between what students say they want and what they are actually willing to engage with
  • In terms of involvement, multiple institutions and SUs noted how 1st year students have been more involved than returning students. New students tend to need more support than the others
  • Multiple attendees talked about the importance of training student societies how to run their own social events online
  • One institution has found that signups to student societies has massively increased – potentially as students are starved of that interaction
  • One SU is going to create a fund, so that students can create the activities that they want (to help with their own wellbeing) – rather than organising them from the SU side ourselves
  • Most institutions said that they have had low engagement but the ones that have been more involved are PG students.

How are students dealing with increased online communications?

  • One institution noted a big increase in the number of student queries that are coming through to their ‘communications inbox’
  • One institution has had to do some comms to students to remind them what their expectations are around comms channels that they need to check
  • Multiple institutions noted that they were getting an increase in queries on social media and this included many coming in on the weekend. Two attendees have created a chat bot to help answer those questions outside of staff hours
  • At one university, they have social media ambassadors who used to meet on a monthly basis, while now they meet every now and then online.

Any other new initiatives or engagement programmes for students this year?

  • Platforms for students to speak to each other have been key, some feel these were the springboard into students now using their own social platforms to stay in touch
  • Self-isolation buddies been run as a scheme at one institution, the main focus being on international students who needed to isolate for two weeks when first arriving. But actually been continued as students have gone in and out of isolation throughout the term. An important consideration as we move forward this year will be how we measure the impact of buddy schemes and initiatives such as this
  • There has been a move away from the traditional residential schemes for obvious reasons, though some colleagues spoke of Resident Assistants and community wardens playing a more important but different role from previous years
  • Universities are extending current support package offers to student groups other than those self-isolating
  • Some colleagues are offering weekly icebreaker sessions throughout the term as opportunities for students to virtually meet new people
  • Institutions are working on a re-introduction package for January following the winter break
  • There were a strong discussion around helping students to split their student life from other elements of their life or sense of belonging
  • One provider is offering a specific Mature Student Hour weekly, at a time that doesn’t clash with school pick up, to allow this specific group of students an opportunity to network with similar-minded individuals.

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