For lots of students, the transition from school to university can be a stressful period and, for many incoming students for the 2022-23 academic year (and beyond), this may be particularly difficult given the impact of the pandemic.
For the University of Portsmouth, this means leaning into the challenges caused by lockdowns and doubling down on ways to create safe and inclusive environments for current and incoming students alike. In my role as Associate Dean of Students in the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries, I am tasked with looking after our student induction and pre-arrival content. I also work in the Being, Belonging and Becoming group, which looks at a wide range of initiatives to help students develop a sense of belonging – from when they join us right through to leaving and becoming professionals.
Currently we are very much focused on the first part of the journey, which is the pre-arrival stage and helping incoming students to feel part of the university community as quickly as we can. We know that students who are not happy or do not settle well in their first few weeks are much more likely to withdraw, unfortunately – this is very clear from our engagement data. This year we also have some added complexity to contend with, in that many of the students joining us will already have experienced a fairly challenging time pre-university due to Covid. For instance, we have got students who are sitting exams for the first time this year, and there is a great deal of stress and anxiety around that
The ‘Welcome To Portsmouth’ programme
So in response to these challenges, we've created (as a collaboration with other colleagues) a university-wide ‘Welcome To Portsmouth’ programme, intended to provide support to students from the moment they have registered to study here, which is about helping students to build connections with one another. This year we are also deploying a platform called Discord, which allows students to start building friendships online, prior to joining the University. Knowing just one person ahead of time can suddenly make the prospect of coming to university much less frightening.
We're also focused on helping students understand what it means to be part of the university community. It is very much saying to students, look, these are some of the things that you need to think about but may not have given too much thought to yet. For us, it is really about getting students to engage with different types of content and trying to shine a light on important topics like equality, dignity and respect.
Our GoodCourse partnership
Through our partnership with GoodCourse, modules such as consent, safety and harassment will play a key part in getting students to engage with topics around belonging and inclusion. GoodCourse has a really novel approach to the delivery of the content. It is short, snappy, hyper-focused content, delivered mobile-first in a student-friendly way. It is built for young people, rather than coming from someone like me who is saying, ‘This is really important, you must listen to this’. It feels much more like you are being spoken to by one of your peers and that is incredibly important in tackling these issues.
We also really like that the information is delivered in very manageable chunks – you do not need a massive amount of time to dedicate to it. If students are able to pick up and remember just a few of the key messages, then there is huge value in that. There is no doubt that these topics are becoming increasingly important – we are seeing lots of issues with students with mental health conditions and this is impacting on behavioural issues when students are here. So we need to think carefully about what the core issues are and how we can then help educate young people and support them through it.
The Being, Belonging, Becoming framework
When you get big groups of young people moving away from home for the first time, often having this level of independence for the first time and learning about appropriate ways of interacting for the first time, they need support. It is important for us that we demonstrate to students that Portsmouth is a safe environment for all students, regardless of who they are and where they have come from. Students need to feel safe, supported and be free to focus on having a great learning experience at university.
Obviously the focus does not end there – once students arrive on campus we have got a tonne of work to do during induction week, supporting students and readying them for a successful time with us here at Portsmouth – and this is where our wider Being, Belonging, Becoming framework comes in. Strategically, this is intended to help students become and then be students, to connect with each other and feel that sense of belonging. It is about engendering a community (at university, course, and students’ union levels) and creating social networks; being inclusive, supportive, and accessible – catering for our diverse student body, and forming part of a whole-institution approach to fostering student wellbeing and inclusion; and covering all students (home and international, all modes).
Author: Simon Brookes is Associate Dean (Students) in the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of Portsmouth.