European First Year Experience Conference, Norway 2015

Taking a team of students to the European First Year Experience conference in Bergen, Norway this year gave me a renewed perspective into their view of our world. As one of my students, Ross Whitehouse, candidly put it as he looked around the conference keynote session, “It’s amazing to see the secret life of academics and that so many of you from all over the world come together for a meet up because you really do give a sh*t about making sure you give us lot [your students] a good experience!” After 13 years in academia, I hadn’t really thought about it like that until now, but actually what a great approach to recognising the value of our activities, and why we are constantly seeking to develop our offering. Because we genuinely do want our students to have a good learning experience, forgetting the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework for a second. In fact, aside from sharing our experiences of the design and delivery of our Level Up transition mentoring programme, our primary motive for attending conferences and events such as this one, is to expose ourselves (and our students) to new opportunities for learning so that we can go on to make good use of best practice within our home institutions.

With 3 years as the standard duration for an undergraduate degree, that’s not an awful lot of time to gain trust, develop positive working relationships and to build a shared learning community. With shorter Masters’ programmes, that is even more difficult! However, with a little effort and some carefully crafted room for flexibility, it is possible to relinquish a little control of the classroom and their learning experience in order to allow the talents and learning ambitions of our students to flourish. In my experience, creating these opportunities easily makes for a much more productive time across those years, in which both parties will learn a thing or two (me included!). Does it require a little more work? Of course it does. Does it bring unexpected joy to your classroom every single day? Absolutely!

Bringing some of our students with us to Norway to talk about this partnership approach in practice, as ever, was a treat and on this occasion our little group fell into a cohort of internationally engaged students, all of whom were keenly ambitious to have their views heard, to make a positive impact upon the student experience and to use their own experience as students in their role as change agents across the Higher Education sector.

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Student engagement-focused conferences for me are always an enlightening experience, offering new ways of reaching out to and engaging our students, which is in direct opposition to Henderson’s recently argued case for conference fatigue as found in Havergal’s recent Times Higher Education article here. At Birmingham City University, we have long promoted partnership working practices with our students, and they have become a firmly embedded part of our routines and practices for achieving change. However, recently I have become fascinated by the attitudes and approaches to achieving change by students of other institutions, and indeed other cultures. I have come to recognise that variants of partnership working practices are now coming to the fore in other institutions and that a range of different approaches for incentivising these practices are in operation. Our Student Academic Partners programme, however, offers the most persuasive approach that I have encountered – true partnership between our students, academics, professional services and administrative staff. But then, perhaps I am biased. So instead, I will let another of our Norway team speak for herself, as quoted by Emily Brammeier below.

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Emily Brammeier, Level Up Mentor 2015

In Norway we were promoting our Times Higher Education Award short-listed, Level Up Transition Mentoring programme, however the value of our engagement in Bergen came through our collaboration with students and colleagues across the HE sector as a part of our workshop discussions. The realisation of our achievements became evident as we were applauded for individual discrete aspects of the Level Up programme including the strength of our mentoring opportunities, our collaborative cross-service embedded workshop activity, personalised tuition and personal tutoring, and our student-led induction programme, with participants of our workshop taking different enquiring approaches to our Level Up programme. The breadth of our delivery programme stands testament to the demands made by our student partners and the areas for support that they felt were essential to our new students’ integration. Our presentation can be found below:

As ever, we left with more ideas than we arrived with, but perhaps none more attractive than the idea of allowing our incoming students to design their own induction activity.

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Much of our Level Up activity has been primarily focused around using our existing students to plan induction and welcome activities for our new cohort. Allowing our incoming students to participate in the design of their own integration into Birmingham City University would represent a new direction for us, but one that is already in practice in Norway, where as we left, one of the University of Bergen students, Marie Lien, was in the process of designing welcome and induction activities with the incoming UIB students. We ended our soiree with the dream of setting up the University of Bergenham, with Professor Stuart Brand as our general pied-piper and King of Student Engagement.

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Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 11.42.27 However, perhaps for us the best bit was having our presentation voted best by the most important delegates of all, the international students themselves. All in, I’d say it was a pretty successful adventure where we conquered insanely large crabs in Bergen’s harbour, scaled mountains to dine at the Floyen restaurant and conquered Vikings to be granted entry to Haaken’s Hall in the process.

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Enormous Crabs at Bergen Harbour (note hand for perspective!)

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Birmingham City University Team: Haaken’s Hall, Bergen

Aside from the usual conference collaborations, we were also warmly adopted by the UIB conference student delegates, who inducted us into Norwegian social culture with a tour of Bergen’s social scene and a trip to Norway’s TV2 station.

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We left with memories of breathtaking scenery and armed to the teeth with ideas that we will go on to put into practice as our Level Up programme is introduced and delivered across our institution as our training programme takes shape.

Norway by Night

Our view from the Floyen Restaurant

Goodbye Norway, hope to see you again soon. The 2016 European First Year Experience event is in Ghent, where no doubt we will meet up with friends old and new. Join us here.

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