We had the pleasure of holding a ProtectED Conversations event at UCL last month – the second in an ongoing series of talks where higher education professionals, academics and ProtectED Member institutions meet to discuss issues impacting student safety and wellbeing.
The theme of July’s ProtectED Conversation was ‘Staff and Student Resilience within HE’, and it was a privilege to hear from ProtectED Founder Members and Keynote Speakers on their approaches and success stories around improving student resilience.
Hearing from Founder Members
Opening the event were speakers from two ProtectED Founder Member institutions: Lesley OKeeffe – Deputy Director of Academic and Student Services at Brunel University London, and Simon Lee – Deputy Director, Resilience, Sport and Wellbeing at Teesside University. Both shared their ProtectED journey to date.
After hearing about ProtectED, Lesley arranged a meeting with her Head of Security. Both read the ProtectED Code of Practice beforehand, and were able to get a conversation started about where the University sits in relation to these requirements. Lesley observed that, while at the size of the document can feel intimidating, working through it turned out to be a valuable fact-finding exercise which “led to some key relationship building between the appropriate people and departments across the University.” Recognising the scope of the task ahead of them, Lesley explained that she was fortunate to have assistance from a recent Brunel graduate:
“We are part of the Ambitious Futures graduate scheme and ProtectED became a six-month project for one of our graduate students. She was able to work through the Code of Practice, speaking to staff, students and different departments across the University. Throughout this process, she kept a record of where we stood in relation to each ProtectED Indicator, and how we could evidence this.”
Meanwhile at Teesside University, Simon described how perceptions of student safety helped influence their decision to join ProtectED: “TV programmes such as ‘Benefits Britain’ showed the area in a bad light and, like many universities, we were concerned about being ‘lumped in’ with city centre crime statistics that don’t provide a true reflection of student safety levels.”
Indeed, this is one of the problems that ProtectED aims address. At present, prospective students and their families must rely on crime statistics that do not relate specifically to students. A better indication of safety levels at a university is whether it can clearly demonstrate a responsible, preventative approach to student safety and campus security. Simon explained: “We can use ProtectED as a tool to show that the University is a safe place to study. It really appeals that we can develop a holistic approach under one framework.”
Addressing student safety, security and wellbeing
Next, Simon and Lesley discussed their experiences addressing each area of the ProtectED Code of Practice, providing invaluable advice for any university wishing to do the same.
Beginning with the Core Institutional Safety and Security section, both discovered that many required initiatives – such as having appropriate CCTV policies or working with local police to enhance student safety – were already in place at their respective institutions. Simon found that “although this section of the Code of Practice is quite lengthy, if you are running good and effective Security Services, you shouldn’t have too much to worry about here.”
Approaching the Student Wellbeing and Mental Health section, while Lesley could easily identify many instances of good practice taking place at Brunel, these initiatives were not always formally recorded and needed to be evidenced. Brunel University London’s Student Services were ‘revamped’ around two years ago to reflect a changing student population, as Lesley outlined: “We found that many of our students have a great deal going on in their lives, beyond the demands of studying for a university degree, and that extra support was needed in certain areas.” The exercise of going through the ProtectED Code of Practice was therefore especially useful, generating written procedures and flowcharts to further highlight the achievements and developments that have taken place in recent years. Lesley continued:
“As we set about evidencing each Indicator, it became obvious just how much of our work in Student Services is referenced and used throughout the University – it was great to see how embedded it is. Some departments could evidence our work even better than we could!”
At Teeside, Simon found ProtectED’s holistic approach to be in line with the University’s own mental health strategy. He provided an excellent example of partnership working between their Student Services and Sports Centre to inform a preventative approach to student mental ill health and help reduce waiting lists for support: “Students are referred to the ‘Lifestyle Clinic’ which encourages them to think about their sleep, exercise and nutrition – these changes can make such a difference to mental wellbeing.” Simon explained that bringing colleagues from across the university together to assist with evidencing ProtectED measures really helped to validate their efforts and hard work in this area.
Working through the International Students section, Lesley particularly liked how ProtectED measures encourage universities to think about the ‘end to end process’ – supporting international students from the pre-arrival stage and throughout the academic year. Her advice for a university going through the ProtectED self-assessment process is to speak to their marketing department: “Our international marketing department loved the idea of ProtectED for how it appeals to international student concerns. They were great to speak to and had lots of information and materials to help evidence our application.”
Simon’s observations from working through this section were that “one or two good projects can cover so many Indicators – for example, our Meet and Greet initiative covered six or seven criteria. It’s so important to help new students understand the culture of where they have come to.” New international students are encouraged to book Teeside’s free Meet and Greet service while they are arranging their accommodation. This ensures that they are met by a friendly Student Ambassador upon arrival at the airport, and taken to their new home.
Moving on to look at the Student Harassment and Sexual Assault measures, Lesley cited a signifiant piece of work undertaken by Brunel in the wake of the Universities UK ‘Changing The Culture’ report (2016). With support from HEFCE Catalyst funding, they developed their Report and Support tools – an accessible, online way for students and concerned parties to report incidents of sexual harassment, hate crime and cyberbullying. Revisiting this work for the purposes of evidencing a ProtectED application, Lesley reflected on how engaging with Universities UK Step Change guidance became a priority a year later: “It made us realise that it’s important to keep reviewing what you’re doing and what you need to do to be able to keep all balls in the air!”
Simon found that “while we realised that we had a lot going on in terms of support, the process of evidencing it helped us think about how best to record and communicate this work to the University community.” Teesside’s Yes to Respect campaign was also joint-funded by HEFCE. It aims to create an inclusive, safe environment for students, staff and visitors to the University. The campaign communicates a zero tolerance approach to all forms of hate crime, harassment and bullying and clearly signposts accessible support and report options. Teesside are also developing staff training to ensure that disclosures of sexual violence are responded to in an appropriate and uniform manner.
The final section of the ProtectED Code of Practice looks at the Student Night Out – measures to promote student safety and wellbeing on and off campus at night. Lesley recalled that the Union of Brunel Students was especially keen to work on this area, collaborating with the graduate student assigned to ProtectED, to identify related good practice and how to evidence it. Lesley emphasised that there is some flexibility when it comes to meeting certain ProtectED Indicators – something which may be of concern to those approaching the task for the first time: “We did try out a safe taxi scheme, but it was not widely used so it may be that a particular initiative is not suitable for, or needs to be adapted to, your University context. This can be explained on your application form.”
Simon gave an overview of Teesside’s initiatives to support a safe student night out, including their Safe Spaces scheme, run jointly with Teesside University Students’ Union. Scheme members display ‘Safe Space’ stickers alerting students to local bars and venues offering a safe haven to those who find themselves in a vulnerable situation. A local taxi firm is a member of the scheme, guaranteeing students a lift home even if their wallet has been lost or stolen. The University is also part of the NUS Alcohol Impact scheme to promote responsible drinking; partnering with a drug and alcohol charity, dry bars on and off campus are promoted to non-drinkers or those in recovery. Despite making strides in this area, there are challenges, as Simon explained: “Our Students’ Union is very safe – we have student staff and trained security – but it can be difficult to get city centre venues to work on the same page at times.”
A final thought
Lesley concluded by reiterating the value of having an external benchmark such as ProtectED and in documenting and evidencing your work to support student welfare: “You can’t have everything all in one person’s head – if they leave or there is a problem, everyone needs to know what is being done, and how, to help maintain that high standard.”
Can a lollipop benefit the student experience?
Next, we heard from University of West London (UWL) colleagues Tracy McAuliffe – Head of Student Services, and Felix Ajala – Head of Security, who began by handing out free lollipops! But more on this later…
Tracy opened with an overview of the student population at UWL: “Around 75% of our students are over 21, many are the first in their family to attend university. We also have a lot of BAME students, commuter students, students with families, and those with full time jobs.” Tracy and her team recognise that a diverse student population requires a considered approach that offers support while promoting student and staff resilience:
“Partnership working is vital for us to meet these needs, things need to stop being siloed. Partnerships bring people together – so vital for us a widening participation institution. Students need to feel like part of the family, and not have a ‘them and us’ relationship with their university.”
With this in mind, there has been a conscious effort to change the perception of Student Services from a reactive to a proactive service at UWL. This includes the development of a Workshop Wednesdays programme, to offer regular, themed sessions throughout the academic year to build student resilience and promote positive wellbeing. Topics include ways to practice mindfulness and build healthy relationships. Students can also attend a free Student Minds ‘Look After Your Mate’ workshop, to equip them with the skills to recognise and support a friend in need. Tracy described the programme aims: “We want to send a positive message, that you can help yourself cope and others, rather than “Stress and Anxiety – Sign up here!” We want to try and change the language around mental health.”
Tracy also touched upon the pressure that can be put on frontline staff who often respond to a wide range of student safety and wellbeing issues, at any time of the day or night. At UWL, this is managed by having a Welfare Team who triage everything for Student Services (similar the <i> system used by ProtectED Founder Members, UCLan), as Tracy explained:
“Students can experience many different issues and this approach ensures they are plugged in to the right help, which in some cases, includes conflict resolution and mediation between students. This service is well promoted, and one phone number diverts students to the right place. Our academics also find this helpful when signposting students to support.”
She continued that training is a vital part of this approach: “We provide training on mental health awareness, conflict management, and dealing with incidents of sexual harassment. Our security and library staff are particularly encouraged to participate, as they are both ‘open’ 24 hours, and frontline members of staff. Students’ Union staff are also included in these sessions. The idea is that everyone has the same training so they can react the same way.”
UWL Student Services also work closely with students – asking, rather than telling them what they would find most useful, and attention is paid to how this information is presented. A series of flowcharts were developed for the University’s Mental Health Policy to make referral pathways as user-friendly as possible for all. Tracy believes that “people feel empowered when they know who to speak to and what to do.”
In Security Services, Felix has also benefited from joined-up working, observing that this approach “can help create resilience for students, the Students’ Union, Student Services and local residents.” Tracy and Felix meet regularly to discuss issues that require attention and improvement. Tracy added that “this is why ProtectED is appealing, having everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, but linking to issues related to each university’s context.”
Felix described how the UWL campus is set in a quiet conservation area where students and locals do not always exist harmoniously: “residents can be concerned when they see students gathering.” In order to foster positive relations with the local community, Felix stressed the importance of managing the expectations of all parties:
“Local residents need a point of contact within the university, someone who will listen. In some cases, I give out my number and see the residents almost as an extension of my team. They call me if they are concerned about anything – this helps keep students safe, builds trust and creates a dialogue.”
The UWL campus location means that students travel to and from events in the evenings. A shuttle bus is provided to help them get home safely, and Felix’s team are on hand to keep things running smoothly: “As you can imagine, 350 drunk students at 3am in a conservation area can be a problem.” At this point, we were instructed to open the lollipops handed out at the start of the session. Felix continued: “We encourage students to travel in small groups. This helps them to stay safe, but it also keeps the noise down. We then hand out lollies to students – they suck these on their way home instead of talking! It’s a small idea but it’s gone a long way to reducing noise and improving relations with local residents.” Once the rustle of wrappers died down, the room did indeed fall silent!
If a problem does arise, Felix emphasised how important it is to have clear lines of communications with all parties: “The University attends Residents Association meetings. There are also joint meetings with a local community support officer, YMCA, local residents and the University where all complaints and issues can be discussed.” In some cases, students are mistakenly thought to be involved in an issue, and this is carefully explained to residents. However, when a genuine problem is identified, UWL have responded positively for the mutual benefit of all, for example, by installing additional CCTV coverage or lighting.
Resilience Workshop with AMOSSHE
The third session of the day was a Resilience Workshop hosted by Teesside University’s Simon Lee – an AMOSSHE executive member. The purpose of the session was to encourage attendees to explore resilience within Higher Education.
Simon began with some background to AMOSSHE, a professional membership association for leaders of Student Services at UK universities that informs and supports its members, and promotes the student experience worldwide. They have representation from 97% of UK universities, as well as members from universities around the world.
Student wellbeing is a concerning issue for Student Services professionals – there has been a 210% rise in students leaving university early due to a mental health problem. Simon explained that, each year, his colleagues in Student Services receive more calls from concerned families, and that steps must be taken to meet students’ support needs. He reflected on a key change that may have negatively impacted the student experience:
“We have seen the decline of the traditional student house, and everything is now subcontracted. Students are less likely to interact with their housemates in big, private city centre accommodation blocks, so universities need to work with their accommodation colleagues to help students to settle in, mix and make friends.”
He also described how UK students often only find out where they will be studying as late as mid-August. This means that they have less time to prepare for this significant life-changing event. In the chaos of moving, Simon has found that some students can forget what makes them, them: “I’ll ask, when was the last time that you did your favourite thing? People move to university and forget the hobbies and interests they had at home. Joining a class or society related to your interests can be a great way of feeling more comfortable in your new surroundings. If students feel more comfortable, they are better able to deal with problems.”
Simon also suggested that – where possible – universities can help students ‘self manage’ their emotions and build resilience, as opposed to pathologising normal responses to the challenges of change. To assist university staff in this task, AMOSSHE launched their Resilience Toolkit in 2018. This online open resource includes research, case studies and practical tools to help Student Services professionals develop student and staff resilience to stress, anxiety and barriers to achievement and success.
The Resilience Toolkit also allows universities to adapt their response to their own situation, finding different ways to build resilience into the curriculum, offer mindfulness interventions or promote positive psychology. Simon explained that these initiatives – which focus on self-management and on preventing a situation from escalating to a mental health crisis – can also help improve staff resilience “given the pressure that many put on themselves to adequately meet the increased demand for student support.”
The value of friendship and peer support is also emphasised in the Resilience Toolkit. This issue is intrinsically linked to student wellbeing and student retention: almost half of UK students say that they have felt lonely at university, and 37% have considered dropping out for this reason. Having someone to talk through problems and coursework with, and importantly have fun with, can make all the difference to a student’s ability to cope with life’s ups and downs. Simon is a great advocate of encouraging new students to build relationships in their first few weeks at university, particularly through sport:
“Sporting activities are a great way for people to get outside, be healthy, and get to know each other. However, this needn’t happen solely through sport. For example, you could offer cooking or music classes. I’d encourage Student Services staff, academics and local groups to work together on this. Ultimately, it’s about humanity and bringing people together.”
Simon finished the session by asking attendees to discuss how they define student and staff resilience, and what type of project they would develop at their institution to encourage emotional balance, self-management, and social integration for students. How would you do this at your institution?
Endsleigh: Prioritising student wellbeing
Closing the event were David Johnson and Stewart Jones from Endsleigh – the leading provider of insurance for students’ unions and accommodation providers in the UK.
Recognising the importance of understanding the evolving needs of students in developing their products – particularly in light of the rise in student mental health issues and reported suicides – David and Stewart presented on a piece of research that Endsleigh have worked on with Red Brick Research. This focuses on the concerns, expectations and experiences of students and their families, particularly at the pre-arrival stage.
When university applicants were asked about issues that they worry about regularly or occasionally in relation to student life, the following three concerns came out on top: academic success (82%); money, finances and debt (80%) and social interactions (79%). David explained that these issues are often connected: “some students will stress about getting good grades from day one, and put pressure on themselves to get a first because they have invested so much money in their education.” Crucially, 93% of students feel that their university has a role – and 40% a key role – in helping them manage their finances. Universities must therefore think carefully about how to meet these expectations, and how to communicate their approach at the pre-arrival stage to offer students early reassurance.
Stewart described how the research also demonstrates the far-reaching impact of money concerns, with 38% of applicants stating that they are worried about transport costs, 49% are worried about being able to eat healthily on a budget, and 51% are worried about the cost of student accommodation. This insight offers some guidance for universities on how to target resources and awareness-raising campaigns to ensure students can access any available support. For example, the University of Cambridge offer advice on their website to help students prepare healthy meals on a budget, and the University of Brighton provide and promote a free weekday shuttle bus for students.