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.


What Works at Birmingham City University: End of an Era?

Reviewing our recent What Works report submission to the Higher Education Academy fills me with some sadness as I reflect upon our activity across the last three years, particularly as our contribution to Phase 2 of the What Works programme comes to an end. It has been quite a ride!

Level Up Handover

Handing Over the Level Up Mantle to Neil Hollins, current Level Up programme leader

However, when I look at all that we have achieved since our first adventure with a group of student experience focused staff and students at the HEA What Works conference back in York 2012, we have got an awful lot out of our participation and a lot to show for our efforts. With our student friendly approach to pre-induction we offer a comprehensive pre-entry student mentoring programme, academic benchmarking and development support, social integration opportunities, personal tutoring and welfare support that is integrated within the academic environment, exciting student-led course-relevant inductions activities, embedded academic support opportunities, as well as the development of a graduate student success adviser role to act as the supporting role for these activities.

As a truly partnership-engineered vision for student support and engagement, our institutional support offered up a free creative vision which allowed us to select and choose from the case studies being presented in order that we could create a support system and mechanism for student retention that would work for our own unique students at Birmingham City University, but perhaps most importantly that would be an attractive option that would be used by our students. In this respect, our student partners were our most valuable asset as they assessed not only the merits of the support systems being promoted by the Phase 1 participating institutions, but as they evaluated which of these approaches would be most beneficial to our own students.

The ideas harvest that resulted in the creative assembly of what went on to become our Level Up programme represented a shared institutional effort to employ partnership working to achieve joint institutional success. Its co-design is perhaps where we garnered the greatest success. In designing administrative processes that met our institutional needs for early induction, systematic time-efficient enrolments, early timetable production and enhanced personalised tuition through an embedded personal tutoring system and academic support programme, this streamlining of our administrative processes meant that more effective support measures could be put in place when our students needed it most.

While Birmingham City University’s participation in Phase 2 of the What Works programme may have come to an end, it is both pleasing and reassuring to see that the process lives on. The beauty of Birmingham City University’s participation in the What Works programme has been the creative freedom that we were afforded at the ground level. Through working in close partnership with academics, administrative staff and our students, we have been in the enviable position of delivering upon our shared institutional principles in a way that allows for the simultaneously scaleable and nuanced delivery against broad institutional principles.

The HEA What Works programme may have concluded but Birmingham City University has gone on to deliver its own change programme. As our Associate Deans and Senior Managers from across the university have come to recognise the benefits brought to both the student experience and to the administrative streamlining of our induction and integrative practices, an on-going interest has seen the organic development of our own change programme. Led by Prof Stuart Brand and Luke Millard, Birmingham City University now has its own change programme in operation where other schools and degree pathways have since joined in order to develop their own approaches to student retention and support. Learning from the existing successes experienced in Media, English, the Built Environment and Radiography, our university has gone on to develop a nuanced approach to personalised and individualised student support. Following the broad ambitions and guidance offered by the What Works programme, our ongoing institutional approach has allowed for a need-specific development at the school and faculty level. This flexibility has meant that individual schools have been able to develop an approach that is of immediate relevance to the participating schools. This approach has meant that those brought into the process are able to build a programme of support that is of immediate relevance to their own students.

While Birmingham City University may have reached the end of an era in its immediate involvement in the HEA What Works programme, those principles and patterns of development will continue to reverberate across our institutions as the ripples of change are felt across Birmingham City University as we employ these principles in support of the delivery of our Strategic Plan 2020. The HEA What Works programme may have come to an end for us, but it still works and our ongoing investment in the change academy practice stands testament to that.

Level Up Shortlisted for Times Higher Education Award

It seems an age ago now, even if it has only been a week since we returned from our celebrations in fancy London town for the Times Higher Education Awards. We didn’t win, but what an honour to have made the shortlist for our Level Up Transition Mentoring programme in the category of Outstanding Support for Leadership Development?


Birmingham City University, Times Higher Education Awards

The evening represented a great moment of pride for me and the team, and as we sat immersed in the buzz of the excitement of the event, I took a quiet moment to take stock and acknowledge the diverse roles played by our Birmingham City University team. Comprising of senior managers, academics, support staff and of our wonderful students themselves, our team consisted of students and staff of our School of Media, as the innovators and initiators of the Level Up programme. With Professor Philip Thickett heading up the team, as our Head of the School of Media and originator of the support programme idea, Neil Hollins as the current Level Up programme lead, Jamie Morris our out-going School of Media Student Success Adviser and our wonderful students Dani Campion and Charlotte Gough (no relation, but I’d adopt her any day!) as representatives of the 2014-15 Level Up team.

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Birmingham City University, Times Higher Education Awards

We were joined by Professor David Roberts as the Associate Dean of Arts, Design and Media, who has supported the parallel delivery of a transition mentoring programme within the School of English and has extended warm and on-going support for the Level Up design principles across the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media. However, the Level Up programme would not have been possible without the unwavering support and guidance offered by our Centre for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT). Professor Stuart Brand, recently crowned King of Student Engagement by our Level Up Mentors team, has represented a key enabler in the design process and delivery of our transition mentoring programme, Luke Millard, who mentored our design team throughout the process and Marisa Parker as our smooth and efficient senior administrator. And of course, me, the staff partner of the original design and delivery team, working alongside our students to design a programme of activities that would aid in delivering our institutional priorities, while ensuring that these were activities that our students would want to engage with.

Taking stock, it is amazing to see just exactly how much we have been able to achieve with the support of our wider Level Up team which has consisted of students and staff from across the institution. However, it is our participation in the Higher Education Academy‘s What Works Change Programme that afforded us the time, space and support to deliver across the breadth of that ambition.

Delivering a transition mentoring programme that was aligned with the findings of the What Works programme whose key findings suggested that for student retention interventions to be successful, those should be firmly embedded within the academic environment (Thomas, 2012). While our own students had been particularly concerned to ensure that any design for student support should cross both the academic and social sides of university life. This is something that was encouraged and as a part of the What Works guidance delivered and experienced at the What Works conference (York, 2012) in order to achieve a much stronger sense of social and community cohesion.

The joint Level Up design process offered a mutually beneficial understanding of the needs of both our students as they arrive, but also of our institutional administrative induction processes. In our shared design planning, we each gained a respectful understanding of one another’s needs, and together we were able to create a system and process for all involved. This shared sense of ownership meant that we were all heavily invested from the start and observing the celebrations across the evening, it became evident that the shared sense of community that we strived to achieve across our institution was in full flow across the evening celebrations of the Times Higher Education Awards. A worthy nomination if ever there was, as I watched the new guard of institutional leaders, our student mentors, inspiring colleagues from other institutions with their infectious enthusiasm for partnership practices in their role as change-makers for achieving shared institutional goals.


Birmingham City University Level Up Mentors, Charlotte Gough and Dani Campion

Looking at the jovial exchange and frivolity occurring around our table at the Times Higher Education Awards, it was evident that not only had we achieved our ambitions through an 8% increase in student retention, but that we had gone a long way towards breaking down imperceptible barriers as senior management, academics, administrators and students shared in a celebration of partnership working through which we had all gone on to become great friends and we had a lot of fun in the process.

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Read more about our Level Up programme here.

Level Up Makes the Shortlist for the Times Higher Education Education Awards

At Birmingham City University, we know that transition mentoring is a flipping good idea and the Birmingham School of Media Level Up Transition Mentoring programme has more than proven its worth in terms of supporting the social and academic support for our students as they join our learning community at BCU, but it is fantastic to have been recognised by the sector for the value of that activity on a national scale. We are very excited about having made the shortlist for a Times Higher Education Award in the category of Outstanding Contribution to Leadership Development.

Level Up Green Army

The project owes its strength to the early leadership of Professor Philip Thickett, Head of the School of Media, while the financial and ideation support provided by our Centre for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching just goes to show that what can be achieved with the right people and support in place. The transition mentoring project went on to be designed, created and delivered by our student team of Level Up Venture Mentors (or LUVMs for short), taking complete leadership in this area, our students – as change agents – have altered the fabric of our shared learning community for the better. ‘You gotta just LUVM!’ has become our catchphrase.

Now let’s just hope we win!

Awards are being announced live on the night of Thursday, 26th November, following our antics on twitter where I will be live tweeting on the night @drkerrygough