Student Experience and Engagement related sessions at the AHEP Annual Conference and Exhibition 2024

The AHEP Annual Conference is a great opportunity to connect with colleagues across the sector and be inspired by a wide range of sessions. Given that the conference caters to all areas of higher education professional roles and that there are so many great sessions scheduled, you might not know where to start.

To help our members of the Student Experience and Engagement special interest group (SIG), we’ve compiled below the sessions that you might find most interesting. We hope that you enjoy the conference and travel back to your own institution with a wealth of new ideas to put into practice.

You can access the full programme for the conference here.

You can find more details about the conference, including how to book your place here.

Sunday Social: Paint, Dine and Sip

Sunday, 24 March from 18:00-21:00

This year, we have partnered with a local artist to bring Coventry to the conference. As part of our Sunday social, delegates will be working together to craft an extraordinary mural, offering you the perfect canvas to showcase your artistic side. This activity not only adds a touch of creativity but also provides a unique opportunity for you to take a piece of the conference home with you, capturing the spirit of Coventry. 

This social event will also host welcome drinks and a two-course buffet.

Whilst not just for those in Student Experience and Engagement related roles… Coordinators from our SIG will be present at the Sunday Social, so come on down and say ‘hello’.

Working Session 1

Monday, 25 March from 10:00-11:00

Delegates can choose one working session per session slot excluding sessions where there are multiple sessions in a slot.

101: Making HE inclusive for transgender students (30 minute presentation)

(Please note, this session will be followed by the 30 minute session, 101: Higher Diversity Coalition: Unlocking Ethnic Diversity in Academic and Student Services Leadership)

Lynne Regan, Disability Adviser and Student Support & Wellbeing Manager, University of Kent

About the session:

My research into the experiences of transgender students in UK Higher Education explored how/whether their needs were being met by HEIs. Investigating themes around harassment, bullying and transphobia, representation in the curriculum, and institutional facilities and administration, the study identified changes needed to make HE a more inclusive environment for trans students. As HE professionals there are a number of things we can do – on both an individual and institutional level – to improve the experience of trans students. At a time of high media and political reporting about trans people, it is more important than ever to get this right.

My study aimed not just to make the experiences of trans students bearable, but to ensure they receive the same exciting and amazing experience that all HE students deserve. To do this, HEIs need to be ready for trans students, providing an affirming experience founded on understanding. As HE professionals we can influence decisions and policies that will support trans students. This presentation aims to inform about some of the issues faced by trans students, and address what we can do, as HE professionals, to champion inclusivity for this student group.

In my research, using a transformative paradigm with its emphasis on addressing issues of social injustice experienced by marginalised groups, I investigated the experiences trans HE students and the power imbalance of learning within a largely cisnormative environment, in order to inform practical change. A critical approach provided a powerful framework for understanding disparities as functions of power in education, within both the curriculum and the HE environment. An understanding of cisnormativity in HE and how this privileges cisgender students and makes it harder for trans students, is integral to bringing about change.

Through surveys and interviews with trans students in HE across the UK, this study identified how obstacles encountered by these students lead to feelings of segregation and otherness; it examined the lack of representation in the curriculum, and the particular impact this has when teaching professional health science subjects; it also looked at how the power of cisnormativity influences across student life, from administration and facilities, to the provision of suitable mental health services.

As HE professionals we have the ability and opportunity to question current policies and practices and to improve the experience of
trans students.

Conference Stream: Demonstrating responsible practice and personal integrity

This session fits into all of the conference streams. This includes, Engaging in the wider context, Demonstrating responsible practice and personal integrity, Being agile and adaptable and Working together

Learning Objectives:

– Delegates will appreciate the difficulties trans students experience in HE and identify the potential impact of these difficulties on attainment and retention, as well as on individual mental health and wellbeing.

– Delegates will understand the steps that HEIs need to take to improve inclusion of this student group and identify where change is needed in their own HEIs

– Delegates will identify how to become a better Ally to trans students and advocate for that change on behalf of a student group that is often overlooked.

102: We Don’t Need No (Secondary/Further) Education? Applying lessons learnt from the post-pandemic secondary/further student experience (30 minute exploratory workshop)

(Please note, this session will take place after the 30 minute session listed after before session)

Jake Harding, Student Enrichment Manager, Manchester Metropolitan University 

About the session:

Engaging with the broader landscape of the education sector and collaborating with colleagues in secondary/further education aligns with the conference theme of navigating political uncertainty. Understanding and addressing crises in schools and colleges, such as issues related to absence, funding, recruitment, retention, and wellbeing, especially exacerbated by the pandemic, is crucial. This is essential not only for the immediate challenges faced by schools and colleges but also for the corresponding impact on higher education. The upcoming UK election holds significance as the resolution of these national issues is pivotal in alleviating pressures on colleagues and students.

The exploration and comprehension of pressures on secondary/further education colleagues and students are pertinent to professionals in higher education, given the emerging translational impacts affecting both sectors. The conference session aims to attract graduates and early-career professionals seeking insights into the post-pandemic secondary/further education student experience. Attendees can apply lessons learned to enhance the higher education student experience and network with like-minded professionals interested in student engagement, enrichment, and overall experience. The session will specifically address how we can influence our respective areas, both within and outside the institution, to collaboratively address broader issues and support student experience and career readiness.

The funding, recruitment, and retention crises in schools and colleges lead to reduced capacity for academic and pastoral support, concurrent increases in student absences, and poor wellbeing. The practice of grade inflation can effectively conceal poor academic performance, as evidenced during the pandemic. If not addressed, poor wellbeing can manifest as disengagement in higher education, both within and outside the curriculum, resulting in a subpar student experience and career readiness. As pressures persist, colleagues may face unsustainable demands on professional support service capacity.

Conference Stream: Working together

This session fits into the following conference stream: Working together and Engaging with the wider context.

Learning Objectives:

– Delegates will understand the pressures on secondary/further education colleagues and students. 

– Delegates will engage with the wider context of secondary and further education and how this translates as emerging trends in higher education

– Delegates will explore how different elements of the education sector can work together, both within and outside the institution, to address national issues and support the student experience. 

105: The development of a student customer relationship management approach to the student lifecycle (60 minute presentation/case study)

Emma Hewitt, Director of Student Administration, Imperial College London, James Hardy, Head of Student User Experience, Imperial College London

About the session:

Imperial College London is embarking on a new strategic and digital transformation on our student lifecycle. The College is moving towards a holistic approach to proactive student support through the development of a new student customer relationship management system and away from a complex, manual and distributed model.

The College is developing a 360 degree view of student support to provide pre-emptive and proactive support to its students, whilst ensuring a user centred rather system approach to development. The presentation will include what a CRM is and why it is important. This will be followed with some guidance on how to approach a user centric approach to a complex system. There will be opportunity to look at the development of a stakeholder map and understand the basics of business process mapping as well as Q&A as part of the session.  

The presentation will include our journey of discovery through to the planned roadmap of implementation; how a student CRM can support strategic and national drivers; where we are on the journey (at the point of the conference); key considerations from a business change perspective and lessons learnt so far; key outcomes and areas to consider for a CRM – thinking beyond the functional aspects of the student journey; how we have taken a user centric approach from our staff through to our students. 

Conference Stream: Being agile and adaptable

This session fits into the following conference streams: Being agile and adaptable, Engaging in the wider context, Demonstrating responsible practice and personal integrity and Working together

Learning Objectives:

– Delegates will explore key considerations and approaches when developing a solution for a distributed HE model. 

– Delegates will understand key aspects of a student CRM (not applicant CRM) 

– Delegates will identify the lessons learnt from this project

107: We are in it together: delivering an effective and inclusive solution for student employability (60 minute case study)

Parmjit Dhugga, Warwick Award Manager, University of Warwick, Ali Collins, Head of Skills, University of Warwick, Alex Johnson, HE Sector Lead, GradIntelligence

About the session:

The Warwick Award, launched in October 2023, is an institution-wide student employability skills award at the University of Warwick. During this session, we will explain how, within a 12-month period, Warwick was able to design, develop and implement a new institutional award that engaged over 12,500 students during the first academic year of deployment. The session will explain how this was achieved by deploying a collaborative and innovative sprint-based process that accelerated the development of the award delivery platform with our collaborators, GradIntelligence.  

The case study will be followed by a group discussion focusing on the challenges that others are facing, the emerging issues that are changing the employability landscape, the different approaches other universities are taking to students’ employability, and the ways in which student’s engagement with their own employability can be maintained over the entirety of their time with us.  

With less than a year to go until the next election, this session is timely because the election could shape the future of the employability and skills sector. Priorities of the next government are likely to be very different. The Conservatives are considering introducing minimum service levels in universities to combat quality concerns with the PM pledging to stop universities offering ‘low value, rip-off degrees.’ The Education Secretary has also reiterated that ‘university is not the only option’, promising that the Conservatives will seek to deliver a lifelong learning revolution. Alternatively, the Labour Party intends to encourage growth by transforming existing training to address skills demands in the local economy, and new innovations in how education will be assessed to ensure they meet national strategic priorities for economic growth and reskilling. The Labour Party also intends to establish a new body, Skills England, which will become responsible for bringing ‘leadership and ambition’ to England’s skills system and reforming the Apprenticeship Levy into a Growth and Skills Levy. 

The session is relevant to the interests of senior university staff who are responsible for leading the development of new ideas to address strategic objectives. The session will also be of interest to mid-level managers who are responsible for the implementation of new institution wide initiatives. The session will have a wider appeal for university staff who are interested in supporting students’ employability and personal skills development and embedding employability skills in the curriculum.  This may include personal tutors and members of staff with a remit that includes student experience or employability. 

Conference Stream: Working together

This session fits into the following conference stream: Working together

Learning Objectives:

– Delegates will understand how to identify and enhance the teaching of employability skills within the curriculum.

– Delegates will learn how to engage large volumes of students in the development, recognition, and reflection on their own
employability skills.

– Delegates will be able to discuss the collaborative system development approaches that can be taken to support students’
skills development and career readiness at their institutions.

Working Session 2

Monday, 25 March from 13:30-14:30

209: Effective Collaboration for Social Change: Working Effectively With Your Students’ Union/Association (60 minute exploratory workshop)

Ashley Storer-Smith, Student Voice Manager, University of Nottingham Students’ Union

About the session:

Students’ Unions have led the charge on social change and activism for many years, from South African Apartheid, Gay Rights, transgender inclusivity, and decolonisation of the curriculum.

As a member led organisation, students lead the political steering with staff acting as civil servants. This unique structure and engagement method is a great opportunity to effectively engage students with social & civic change. This session will give an overview of the key structures and engagement methods of Students’ Unions to help participants learn about how they can adapt their structures to better engage students with this work.

This session will also focus on how academic and professional staff can effectively engage with their Students’ Union/Association/Guild; creating unique opportunities for collaboration so that they can enact social change together. This workshop will help support colleagues with idea generation with the unique student-led perspective as well as how to effectively approach the Union whilst ensuring a student-led perspective to their work.

Conference Stream: Working together

This session fits into the following conference stream: Working together

Learning Objectives:

– To explore how Students’ Unions work when it comes to social justice and change making through their unique democratic
structures and systems and how to utilise this within their own work.

– To examine how to approach conversations around collaborative change with their local students’ union

– To develop key initial ideas on what they can collaborate on with their local Students’ Union

Working Session 3

Monday, 25 March from 14:35-15:35

308: The use of data to enhance programme improvement strategies across a large and diverse apprenticeship provision (60 minute case study)

Dean Marshall, Apprenticeship Officer, University of Cumbria, Paul Armstrong, Head of Apprenticeships & Employer Skills, University of Cumbria

About the session:

Attitudes towards apprenticeships have evolved over recent years and are increasingly recognised as a viable alternative route to university often opening doors to those who wouldn’t have considered university as an option. According to government apprenticeship and trainee figures (October 2023) 41,340 apprentices started degree apprenticeships to Bachelors (Level 6) and Masters (Level 7) standards in England during the academic year 2022/23. However, with this increase also comes greater complexity in delivery and a need to maintain key working relationships with external partners and employers.  

The university of Cumbria has been delivering apprenticeships since 2018 and currently supports over 2000 apprentices across 16 programme disciplines, with plans to further develop our portfolio to meet regional and national workforce needs. However, as the programme continues to grow so does the need to ensure our apprenticeship programmes are effective and efficient, so learner and employer experience is one of positivity with intended outcomes being achieved. 

In this session we aim to outline how we are making best use of data to drive forward programme improvement strategies and adapt a more robust administrative model that positively impacts learner progress and performance across a growing and diverse apprenticeship provision. In the session participants will consider how they can use a data driven approach to maintain and enhance employer relations through constructive conversations in a complex regularity environment.  

On attending this session, we aim to link the importance of data in improving student outcomes and retention rates and how employers can make best use of this as part of their recruitment strategies. The session will encourage delegates to consider the importance of employer relationships and the need to positively engage with a range of employers to meet the needs of the workforce of both today and the future. 

Conference Stream: Engaging with the wider context

This session fits into the following conference stream: Engaging with the wider context

Learning Objectives:

– Delegates will identify how data can be used to make informed decisions and enhance service delivery 

– Delegates will appraise the benefits of working collaboratively and how collaboration can be used to support apprenticeship development and growth

– Delegates will identify how to make the best use of opportunities to enhance external relationships 

Working Session 4

Tuesday, 26 March from 10:20-11:20

402: Advancing inclusive service delivery: A matrix based strategy for diverse access (60 minute facilitated discussion)

Sara Murcott, Student Services Manager, Nottingham Trent University, Dr Gwyn Eanor, Student Support Coordinator, Nottingham Trent University

About the session:

This session will demonstrate how multiple services can come together to deliver a seamless student-facing service. Our collaborative approach to service delivery brings together internal partners, as well as external third sector organisations in an approach recognised by the OfS as being key to increased equality of opportunity.

Students will often need input from multiple specialist services to enable them to navigate HE in the current climate of an increase in mental health and wellbeing support needs, the impact of the cost of living crisis and changes to the student visa programme. We will demonstrate the value of our approach in providing a single front door for students which can provide tailored advice and guidance and coordinate their access to specialist teams where appropriate.  Our PATHways approach offers both a drop-in and appointment based service, available to all students who can, and do, present about anything and everything.

We carried out desk-top research into this topic by exploring if and where other comparable services exist within the HE sector. We investigated and tested this idea, both in the early stages of the previous iteration of the service (known as ‘triage’), when it funded via an Investment Fund Bid provided by our VC. We did so again more recently, before the re-launch in the Summer of 2022. We tested our ideas with our customer-base, via staff consultation and student feedback. 

From our research, we learnt that although there are some variations on a theme of this service provision, no other competitor seems to be able to demonstrate the impact of the service in its accessibility across the broad range of the student population, based on a such a collaborative approach of service delivery. 

Conference Stream: Being agile and adaptable

This session fits into the following conference stream: Being agile and adaptable and Working together

Learning Objectives:

– Delegates will be able to identify the benefits (and pitfalls) of a matrix approach to service delivery

– Delegates will be able to gain an insight into the added value for staff and students of working together in an agile way. 

– Delegates will be able to assess if the PATHways approach to service delivery is the way forward for them in offering a non-stigmatising service, open to all. 

403: Awarding gaps, grade inflation and the impact of no-detriment policies during COVID-19 (60 minute wild card)

Erica Brackenbury, Quality Manager, University of Roehampton 

About the session:

The session presents research which indicates that the Office for Students’ (OfS) statistical model for identifying ‘unexplained’ attainment intrinsically embeds harmful expectations about the academic performance of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and minoritised ethnic groups. Increased attainment within these groups is disproportionately branded as ‘grade inflation’, most habitually when in attendance at lower-tariff universities. This ideological position is fundamentally incompatible with the OfS obligation to “improve equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education.”

This workshop will highlight the challenges faced by universities with the most diverse groups of students when tackling the ideas of ‘grade inflation’. The key idea presented within this session is that the rise in attainment during COVID-19 and related no-detriment policies was not ‘grade inflation’ but the removal of the deficit model, allowing students to perform to their abilities without artificial barriers being presented.  Delegates are encouraged to think how elements of no-detriment policies can be utilised in future practice to support students with significant challenges in accessing and thriving in university.

This research was undertaken as part of my MA dissertation at Bath Spa, for which I was awarded a distinction. It has been through thorough ethical approval processes and is based upon mixed-methods research, utilising publicly available data, FOI requests to institutions and semi-structured interviews with participants working within academic and professional roles in universities. These various datapoints were used to triangulate and support the findings of the research project.

The data presented by the OfS in support of the narrative of grade inflation is misleading, the lack of transparency making it difficult to draw conclusions. Utilising statistical analysis, I have found significant correlations between the prevalence of specific demographic groups at institutions and increased rates of ‘grade inflation’. No-detriment policies and practice during COVID-19 significantly reduced the ethnicity awarding gap, though the picture is more complex when data is disaggregated
into specific ethnic groups. Universities should consider maintaining some of these principles post-COVID, to support students in their university journey.

The workshop will be run as a world café, with an initial presentation briefly summarising my research before delegates are split into groups to discuss the topics raised. Delegates will also have the opportunity to feedback their discussion, considering what methods can be implemented in universities to help tackle the awarding gap for certain groups.

Conference Stream: Demonstrating Responsible Practice and Personal Integrity

This session fits into the following conference stream: Demonstrating responsible practice and personal integrity and Engaging with the wider context

Learning Objectives:

– Delegates will be able to analyse the inequities embedded within the OfS model of grade inflation

– Delegates will consider what mitigations can be implemented within your own institution to support students from a diverse range of backgrounds to succeed in higher education.

– Delegates will evaluate the effects of no-detriment policies upon different demographic groups.

408: Let’s put staff belonging top of the agenda: creation of an action learning set scheme for professional staff in student experience and engagement roles (60 minute wild card)

David Gilani, Head of Student Engagement and Advocacy, Middlesex University, Siobhan Dumphy, Head of Student Engagement and Advocacy, Canterbury Christ Church University, Chris Whitehead, Communications Lead (Seamless Student Journey programme), University of Surrey

About the session:

Given the prevalence of discussions around student belonging within the sector in recent years, it’s easy to overlook the need that we all have as professional staff to feel a sense of belonging in our universities. Staff belonging can be a challenge for many different reasons. Some staff will be new to their institution, job role or higher education altogether and may not know
yet how they fit in. Other staff may be located in areas of their university which mean that they don’t really have a ‘team’ around them to connect with. Some more senior staff may be facing new challenges and no longer have peers at their level to share these issues with.

To address the importance of staff belonging and come together to counter staff isolation, the Student Experience and Engagement Special Interest Group is developing an action learning set scheme for anyone involved with the network. This session will act as the official in-person launch for the action learning sets – a practice commonly used in many professional
development programmes to bring together participants to help collectively problem solve and enhance connections.

This session itself will split into two halves. The beginning of this session will feature an introduction from the Special Interest Group team. This introduction will feature some insights into the literature around student and staff belonging and the connections between the two, as well as practicalities for how the action learning set scheme will run. The second half of the session will then be focused on initial conversations within action learning sets, so that delegates will get an opportunity to meet each other in person.

To ensure that we can make the best use of the time in this session, all delegates will be required to register for the session in advance, so that action learning sets can be established that take into account delegates institutions and areas of work.

The action learning set scheme will then continue beyond the AHEP Annual Conference. The Student Experience and Engagement SIG will provide resources to all action learning sets, to help encourage ongoing connection.

Conference Stream: Working together

This session fits into the following conference stream: Working Together

Learning Objectives:

– Delegates will gain a clear understanding of how belonging amongst staff is crucial for effective universities and for the wellbeing of each of us.

– Delegates will explore the purpose of an action learning set and the basic rules of engagement to make sure that all participants benefit.

– Delegates will establish who will be in their action learning set and how to engage with others in their set:

In addition to all of the above sessions that are more specifically related to our work in student experience related roles, you will find dozens of other conference sessions that relate to your professional development as staff members. We also know that student experience work does not exist in a vacuum; so, depending on your role, you may want to attend some of the sessions geared towards service design approaches, quality assurance and more.

We hope that you find the conference useful and come away with some great ideas to implement back at your own institutions.