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Small is beautiful: Supporting students through the pandemic in a University Centre

No-one would doubt that all higher education providers care about their students and have been paying extra attention to student wellbeing during the past twelve months. But in a university centre that’s smaller in size than a typical university faculty, we’re lucky to have had the time and space to really focus on individuals and support students to achieve. 

As a small centre, University Centre Calderdale College has always had the ability to really keep track of every student as an individual. However, during the pandemic lecturers have been updating managers weeklyin some cases, daily – on how students are doing, monitoring their progress as they navigate through what has been a really difficult time in their educational journey.

We have a predominantly mature student population – with ages ranging from twenties to fiftiesof whom the vast majority are juggling priorities including working, caring for family members and children, and coming back into education after a break or a career. Around two-thirds come from low participation postcodes, and are often the first in their family to embark on a degree (in fact some of them are motivated by the thought of inspiring their own children to do a degree). These are students who are already suffering a slight collective identity crisis when the mainstream press talk of students en-masse as a teenage, postLevel 3 population; for them doing a degree is a delicate balancing act between the day-to-day priorities of work and family, and the personal motivation and desire to succeed 

At Calderdale, the small team of managers in which I work collectively know the names and situation of eachandevery individual student through weekly catch ups with teaching staff. Lecturers have become quasi-counsellors, talking through students’ individual crises as the various pressures of home and work life become magnified, the separation between academic work and their other roles becoming ever blurrier.

The precariousness of some students’ lives during the past twelve months has become starkly apparent, with reports of struggles with home education, participating in online classes, caring for families and vulnerable relatives, working, and all the while suffering themselves with low levels of wellbeing, feelings of isolation, inadequacy, extreme fatigue, and – in some cases – Covid-19. 

It’s the bond between students and the University Centre that has been keeping it all going. Or, should I say, the bond between students and the staff. Lecturers, academic skills support, library staff, learner services; all have gone the extra mile to support students. We haven’t had any clamour from students about a refund of tuition fees; our student satisfaction seems to have gone up, not down. Staff who have been keeping a close eye on students with worrying signs of low mood, depression, anxiety, themselves feel worn down.

I’m sure I’m not the first one to remark that moving whole courses online has been a shock to the system. However, in spite of all that, we’ve supported the vast majority to achieve – and to achieve well. Yes, there are more students taking breaks from study or being granted extenuating circumstances and not everybody has made it through unscathed. But for our students, having the feeling that they’re viewed as a person and being treated individually has really made the difference. 

 

Dave Clapham, Quality, Partnership and Learner Engagement Manager at University Centre Calderdale College 

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