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ProtectED Conversations Blog: Manchester 22/03/19

The first ProtectED Conversations event took place in Manchester on Friday, beginning a series of quarterly talks where higher education professionals, academics and ProtectED Member institutions meet to share perspectives on issues impacting students' safety and wellbeing.

Each ProtectED Conversation is themed, with Friday’s event focusing on collaborative approaches to supporting student wellbeing, the role of the Students’ Union in improving the student experience, and the impact of student debt.

Lisa Banks – Director of Student Services at the University of Central Lancashire

Lisa opened the day’s talks by sharing her approach to student services at UCLan, a ProtectED Founder member institution. She began by reflecting on how much the student experience has changed in recent years, and the challenge this poses for universities as they develop and deliver student support services. Lisa observed, “More students are working while at university now — in some cases undertaking a 40 hour week alongside their studies, or working in placements due to the nature of their course. We’re also seeing more mature students, and those with families to care for.”

A recent Parliamentary report found a link between social media use and mental ill health in young people — another trend that Lisa has noticed among students. While recognising that social media is an effective tool for raising awareness of support services, she explained, “Students will comment that they often look at other people’s social media feeds and feel that their lives don’t match up, or aren’t as exciting, and they put additional pressure on themselves.”

Record numbers of people now go on to higher education, so universities will inevitably encounter students dealing with a wider range of personal, medical, or financial issues. Lisa and her team at UCLan are alert to this, understanding that adjusting to university life can be challenging for all students, regardless of their background or experiences. Lisa recommends that institutions consult the Student Minds Transitions guidance: “Get together, read through the guidance, talk about what you can do at your institution to make it easier for your students to adjust.” The document offers tools to help students manage their time, relationships, finances, mental health and much more, as well as signposting to additional help, if needed.

UCLan also offer tailored support to help specific student groups settle in to university life, and thrive: for example, the student services team have developed dedicated web pages and support materials for applicants and prospective students on the autistic spectrum. Further, they carefully consider how best to support their 4,000 onsite international students, which Lisa explained: “We initially ran a welcome week for international students during the week prior to Freshers’ Week, but through seeking student feedback, we found that some students felt segregated from domestic students.”

In response, UCLan now run orientation events for the whole student population, while simultaneously offering dedicated support for certain groups. For international students, this includes a free airport pick-up service; a phone call to ensure students are settling in well; and the option to attend additional social events through ESN UCLan (International and Exchange Students Society). Students are supported to open a bank account, and register with the police (if applicable), and are provided with British Council ‘Creating Confidence’ guidance to help them have a safe, positive time in the UK. A Christmas dinner is also laid on for international and domestic students who remain on campus over the festive period, taking into account that some students may be estranged from their families.

Starting a conversation

When planning services to support a diverse and growing student population, Lisa pointed out the careful balance that needs to be struck between proactive and reactive services: “It’s so tempting to put all of your resources into crisis, but you must drag some back to prevention. You can’t throw everything at the problem, without providing ways to help students grow and be resilient.” She informs her approach by keeping a conversation going with like-minded individuals and organisations across the sector, speaking with colleagues, students and academics, and meeting with Universities UK and the Office for Students.

Lisa recognises the potential that ProtectED membership offers UCLan for working collaboratively with other HEIs and experts to support students, developing valuable networks of communication: “As more universities join, it’s a great way to find like-minded institutions to work with and share good practice. We found the exercise of sitting down with the ProtectED Code of Practice and working through it to be a really helpful. It let us see where we stand.” The Code of Practice not only offers a comprehensive benchmark against which universities can measure their policies and practices, but also is populated throughout with case studies that provide an valuable insight into good practice in the sector.

Collaborative working

Partnership working is at the heart of UCLan’s approach to supporting student wellbeing, and Lisa took the decision to unite their related university services under one umbrella, creating the CMHW (Counselling, Mental Health and Wellbeing) team. This turned out to be a great decision: “Too many things can go wrong if your services aren’t working together. Previously, our work to support student wellbeing was taking place in pockets around the university. Now that these different individuals and initiatives are working together, we’re better able to get the right student to the right support at the right time.”

Academic advisors and mental health services also work together — a relationship that allows the CMHW team to speak to a student’s personal tutor or academic advisor on their behalf if they are experiencing difficulties, without disclosing why the student is engaging with them. The team run training sessions for academic advisors, as well as tailored version for Students’ Union representatives: this helps them to recognise problems and signpost students to the type of support they may need, before a situation escalates.

UCLan also work with external partners such as the local NHS trust’s Mindsmatter initiative. This partnership has helped the university to reduce their waiting list for mental health and wellbeing support, at no additional cost to themselves: “Where other services who have an agenda to support the community exist, we will get them on campus and link them up students who may benefit from their expertise,” Lisa explained. Other partnerships include those between the University and Lancashire Constabulary, and with Young Addaction Lancashire — a substance misuse service for under 25s. This work is a clear reflection of Lisa’s vision for student services at UCLan: “The goal is to get to a point where the majority of our resources are in prevention, and it’s easier to do this in collaboration.”

Lily Green and Sarah Thompson – UCLan Students’ Union

Next, we heard from Lily Green (VP Welfare) and Sarah Thompson (Academic Representation Coordinator) from UCLan Students’ Union (SU) on the importance of collaborative work between universities and Students’ Unions.

Lily began by setting out what SUs can offer universities working in partnership with them: “We have our ear to the ground and any action that we decide to take is based on what students are telling us. We are on the same side [as universities] and we want students to succeed. We offer the necessary student perspective which is needed to shape university services.”

Lily explained that typically, an SU campaign includes an element of “call to action,” some outreach work, and signposting to support services. Further, that the SU has the benefit of having their own social media channels, forums and networks to effectively communicate information on support services, events and campaigns: “If students haven’t seen something, we can help to get it out there.” These networks extend to other SUs around the country with whom UCLan SU works closely to share good practice and discuss current issues.

‘Yes to Respect’

Sarah then introduced us to an example of the collaborative approach taken at UCLan: the ‘Yes to Respect’ campaign developed in partnership between the University, the SU, and the local community. The campaign is included in UCLan’s ‘Student Dignity and Respect’ policy — a document that was created in consultation with the SU, and which clearly sets out the University’s zero tolerance approach to all forms of abuse and violence. The SU unify their communication channels around the ‘Yes to Respect’ campaign, to help get the message out further. Students and staff worked together on a campaign video (see below), which will be shown to students during induction week, helping to create a supportive and inclusive atmosphere. Crucially, the entire campaign was co-produced with students, as Sarah emphasised: “We made an effort to listen to everyone, not just the confident voices, in developing this piece of work.”

An important feature of the ‘Yes to Respect’ campaign is that it allows students who experience or witness a hate crime, sexual harassment or cyberbullying an opportunity to report it online and anonymously. Lily explained the process of developing the reporting tool: “We wanted to streamline how people can report and receive support. We worked with Student Services to understand how students use technology, and make this as user-friendly as possible.” After making a report, students automatically receive links to further advice and support. It is also made clear that there is no pressure to take the issue any further. Lily pointed out that students have the further option of receiving completely independent advice through the SU, if they do not want to involve the university. She emphasised, “We have experts within the Union who can offer advice and information on a range of issues impacting student wellbeing. We also know that it is important to have an open and frank conversation so that students understand how information is shared and received: we do not share information without their consent.”

By providing accessible ways to report and seek support, institutions may see an initial increase in recorded incidents (something that the University of Cambridge found last year). However, in prioritising this issue, institutions send a message of zero tolerance and help create an environment where people feel they will be listened to and supported if the worst should happen.

Vivi Friedgut – Blackbullion

The final speaker of the day was Vivi Friedgut — CEO of Blackbullion — who explored student financial resilience and how universities can encourage better decision-making through behaviour change. Prior to launching Blackbullion, Vivi visited campuses throughout the UK to deliver finance-related presentations. Recognising the far reaching impact that finances can have on a student’s life, Vivi’s goal with Blackbullion is to provide as many students as possible with digital tools to understand and confidently manage their finances at each step of the student journey.

What can go wrong?

A number of surveys over the last few years have highlighted students’ financial struggles: one in seven have been chased by debt collectors after failing to keep up with rent repayments and 39% struggle to afford their weekly food shop. These figures demonstrate why Vivi’s work is so vital. She explained that many of the reasons students cite for dropping out of university can eventually be traced back to a financial issue: “Financial difficulties are the primary predictor of student attrition, and 64% of students say that financial anxiety is affecting their mental health.” There is also a growing demand among students for more support in this area, with 70% asking for financial education at university.

Vivi argues that universities must carefully consider how students’ support needs will vary at different times. For example, Blackbullion provide content aimed at parents or guardians, equipping them with the knowledge to offer support at the crucial transitional stage between school and university. Blackbullion tools also help new students create a budget plan — with tips on how to stick to it. Starting off on the right foot is so important, as Vivi explained: “Students typically spend a third of their student loan within the first two weeks of starting university — often on socialising, joining societies etc. With a good understanding of how to manage their finances, students can avoid running out of money and resorting to payday loans or gambling.”

The concerning results of a recent NUS survey revealed that 59% of students have gambled during the past 18 months, and 48% did so to supplement their income. Indeed, Vivi warned that issues with payday loans are currently being “dwarfed” by gambling problems for students: “Institutions need to be more mindful of this issue. There is a leading student website that many universities still refer their students to for advice, and the number one download from that site is a guide, aimed at students, that encourages match betting as a viable way of making money.”

Prevention over cure

Vivi suggested that, while technology brings convenience to our lives, it can also make it easier for people to overspend, whether on gambling or online shopping. “People tend to spend more when using contactless technology, for example. You need to find ways to add friction into the smooth process of spending money — like by disabling your PayPal account!

As with Lisa Banks’ approach at UCLan, the focus here is on prevention rather than cure. This is why Blackbullion offer student-facing tools to encourage budgeting, but also saving money while at university. As one student-user has attested: “A lot of people think learning about finance can be quite boring, but Blackbullion does this differently. Their visually engaging videos and interactive quizzes motivate me to learn.”

When promoting money management services and tools, Vivi stressed that institutions must collaborate with students: “The student voice is impossible to replicate. You need to get students involved, and letting them take over social media channels for a day or week is really effective. Students are keen to have their voices heard and to positively influence others.” She explained that this work need not entirely take place online, however, and that the ‘basket challenge’ — where students are asked to taste test expensive foods against budget alternatives, and often find there is little to separate them — is an ever-popular fixture in many university Money Week programmes: “People enjoy interactive learning. We are social creatures and sometimes don’t get enough offline interaction.”

As students reach their final year at university and begin to think about the graduate job market, or if they need to work alongside their studies, it is vital that they understand the various deductions that will be taken from their pay packet. Blackbullion research found that 84% of students are interested in learning more about taxes, and this information is built into their learning tools. Vivi described how many students are budgeting with the wrong figure in mind: “They’re simply not aware of how much money they really have available at the end of each month and they get into trouble. Without a solid understanding of their finances, this can cause them to drop out of university.”

Blackbullion currently partner with 24 universities globally to offer their service to over 500,000 students.

We will be announcing the next ProtectED Conversations event soon — keep an eye on our blog or the ProtectED social media channel for updates, or sign up to the ProtectED newsletter. ProtectED Conversations events are built around the interests of our ProtectED Member institutions, They are free to attend and open to all those working or studying within the HEI sector, and anyone with an interest in furthering the conversation on how to best support student safety, security and wellbeing.

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