Creating a culture of student engagement

“Student engagement can take many forms, and can be as simple as attending a lecture or speaking with a tutor,” says Mel Joyner, when asked about the University’s approach to engaging with its student body. “It’s a choice, but also part of the lived experience, and varies from student to student.”

The University’s new Director of Student Services has formally been in post since November 2015, and the former Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Health and Human Sciences is under no illusion as to some of the challenges that lie ahead for higher education over the coming years. But, with her teams in Careers and Employability, Complaints and AppealsLearning Support and Wellbeing, and the student-facing elements of Residence Life, she is focused on creating a culture of engagement that is both enabling and inclusive.

“We start off from the principle and ethos of care,” says Mel, who joined the University as a lecturer in social sciences in 1996. “What we want to do is contribute to the University environment and student experience so that students feel cared for and safe in order that they can take ‘academic risks’. And within that, we need to both support the student but also the faculties, which have the primary responsibility of delivering that academic experience.”

The ‘joint challenge’ for Student Services and the Students’ Union, with whom they work closely, is to build upon the success they’ve had in engaging with the 18- to 21-year old undergraduates, and look to improve in areas that have typically proven more difficult to reach.

Mel says: “If you have a timetable that dictates 30 hours per week of lectures, and you’re commuting in from Cornwall, you’re probably not going to spend a great deal of time in the Students’ Union. One of the challenges we face is accessing those marginal voices.”

Providing new ways to engage with the University, and broadening choice in terms of the range of services offered, has been central to addressing that challenge. For example, confirming the feedback provided by the UPSU Pre-Freshers’ Survey and freshers’ feedback, Residence Life has introduced the option to request ‘quiet’ accommodation (with up to 220 beds available), and alcohol-free events have also proven to be a very popular addition to the calendar.

Managing parental expectation

“I have definitely observed a significant rise in ‘helicopter parenting’, and I also saw an increased trend in New Zealand before I left,” says Scott Walker, Head of Residence Life and Student Accommodation Services. “And that is something that we have to be mindful of when we run our service.”

The ‘helicopter parent’ is the term used across the higher education sector to refer to the more hands-on approach that some parents have adopted to their children’s experience, particularly when it comes to accommodation. This typically manifests itself in an increased number of enquiries and complaints direct from parents rather than students, and issues where parents complete the accommodation application themselves, resulting in unhappiness from their children when they arrive for the first time.


So the team has made a number of changes, including insisting that all applications are completed by the student, and providing a wider range of accommodation, with new quiet zones introduced. The team are also considering the introduction of an induction course for parents, creating bespoke communications for them, hosting a specific area on the University website for them, and providing the option for students to name their parents as ‘guarantors’, which will enable the University to share more information with them if needed.

“We are building the residence life model to act as a safety net for students,” Scott says, “where they can learn independent living in a supportive environment. So within the community we give the message that students should try to resolve issues themselves first with the advice and support of the residential assistants and hall coordinators. Parental involvement reduces our ability to do this as the parent’s expectation is that we will solve it rather than help the student resolve it. Ultimately, it’s about marketing our halls as a great option where we implement a friendly, supportive and safe environment, but one where the student experience is entirely related to what they put in.”

There is also a range of support for literacy and numeracy, for example the SUM:UP drop-in sessions, hosted in the library, which provide advice on all aspects of undergraduate mathematics and statistics. There is a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow who can be booked for appointments, while the Writing Café, based on the top floor of the Babbage Building, not only encourages students (and staff) to explore techniques and strategies to improve their academic writing, but draws in community organisations and contacts as well, and runs events throughout the year. Hundreds of students from across the faculties use the café every term, and some are paid to be writing mentors. In addition, postgraduate architecture students have been helping with plans to refine the layout, to provide new lockable storage, and private and communal seating areas.

Christie Pritchard, Learning Development Advisor, said: "In the higher education context, there is increasing attention upon the ways in which physical spaces on campus can create opportunities for, and barriers to, learning. Social, communal spaces can be extremely valuable in this context because they support discussion related to research and learning. What we’ve done with the Writing Café is take an under-utilised area in Babbage and draw on the historical legacy of the coffeehouse to provide a creative hub where staff, students and members of the wider community can meet to explore and develop their academic writing alongside student writing mentors and Learning Developers.” 

Pastoral care and support

“We put together a business case for two full-time mental health workers and they have been a fantastic addition to the Student Counselling and Personal Development team, offering one-to-one and group support for students, and advice for staff,”

John Hilsdon, Head of Learning Support & Wellbeing

Providing pastoral care and support to students is also a major part of the offering, particularly with a huge increase in the number of students reporting mental health issues. A Higher Education Funding Council for England report published in September 2015 found the number of students declaring mental health problems had increased from just less than 8,000 in 2008/09 to nearly 18,000 in 2012/13, with HEFCE predicting that the trend would continue.

“We put together a business case for two full-time mental health workers and they have been a fantastic addition to the Student Counselling and Personal Development team, offering one-to-one and group support for students, and advice for staff,” says John Hilsdon, Head of Learning Support and Wellbeing, when asked about the issue. “The Student Counselling team also offers personal development sessions, including ‘Mood Boost’ and mindfulness, a 24-hour advice line, and the ‘Listening Post’, which is staffed by trained volunteers from outside of the University. These initiatives owe a great deal to the pioneering leadership of Anne Bentley, the manager of our counselling service. And there is SHINE, another highly acclaimed Plymouth University initiative, a self-help online-resource site that provides articles and links, and practical exercises relating to psychological and emotional wellbeing to hundreds of followers, via social media.”

Student support

"The Student Counselling team also offers personal development sessions, including ‘Mood Boost’ and mindfulness, a 24-hour advice line, and the ‘Listening Post’, which is staffed by trained volunteers from outside of the University."

John Hilsdon, Head of Learning Support & Wellbeing

The challenging mental health landscape is part of a broader picture that includes government cuts to the level of disability support it provides to universities. At Plymouth, there are around 3,600 students with a declared disability, representing 16 per cent of the student population – around double that of the national average – and until recently the cost of meeting their additional needs was largely met through the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). But, in 2014, the government announced that it would be making significant changes to the way the funding worked, switching the emphasis to universities being responsible for funding – from their fee income – the ‘reasonable adjustments’ needed for students with disabilities. And that includes no longer funding changes to accommodation, and severely cutting back the support available to those with less-severe forms of disability.

“Plymouth University has a reputation for being an excellent provider of services to students with disabilities going back a number of years,” says John, “certainly to the time of Judith Waterfield, who was a National Teaching Fellow and undertook a great deal of pioneering work here. As a result, a lot of parents have seen Plymouth as a go-to university.”

In advance of the cuts to the DSA, the Disability Services team has been running awareness-raising sessions with academics on the changes and their implications, and working with Teaching and Learning Support to look at how they might advise academics on ways to make the learning environment even more inclusive.

John says: “That might mean making more learning materials available in advance of sessions, increasing the use of video and online content, offering alternative forms of assessment, and sometimes offering modifications to the learning experience such as alternatives to group-work. It’s not always easy to do, but it’s about making the experience more flexible and suitable for a range of learners.”

Disability Services

The University’s support for disabled students begins the moment they apply to study here via the Disability Services (DS) admissions programme. 

“We began our pre-admission work for the 2016/17 academic year in January, ”says Karen Sheret, the Disability Services manager. “It’s a huge undertaking, because we assess what support the student may need, and that often involves scheduling meetings for students with more complex disabilities along with their family and a member of the Residence Life team and their programme staff. For the past three years, we have also run a ‘Pre-Induction Scheme’ for students on the autistic spectrum. Students with autism are invited onto campus for up to two days, along with their family if they choose, so that they can orientate themselves and learn where the different facilities are – the cafés, the libraries, where the city centre is, etc. And as part of that, we pay for their hotel stay and their food on campus – it really is one of our flagship projects with great student feedback.”

Support for autistic students is also catered for in partnership with student-led services. Other projects include ‘Social Eyes’, a training programme that facilitates social skills and social understanding for students on the autistic spectrum. 

The Disability Services team has redesigned the Student Support Document (SSD) to make it easier for staff and students to understand – and inform the faculties of the individual needs of students with disabilities, and provide ways of implementing an inclusive learning environment. It has also established a reimbursement scheme for students who struggle to receive a diagnosis for a specific learning disability or ADHD, enabling them to fast track a diagnosis and pave the way for the appropriate support.


The disability issue is one of three core challenges facing higher education, according to Mel – one she has close experience of, both as a specialist tutor and for her work with Sarah Anderson in introducing the case conferencing approach (see boxed articles for more details on disability, student debt and the ‘helicopter parent’).

But addressing such challenges can, in the process, create opportunities for partnerships between Learning Support and Wellbeing and the student body. For example, the acclaimed Peer Assisted Learning Scheme (PALS) is largely delivered by trained students who lead regular study sessions with those in the year below, facilitate discussion around course content and approaches to learning, and capture and reflect experiences and concerns from their students. And the success of PALS was demonstrated when students Ross Busby and Kathryn Edwards were invited to present an academic poster on personal tutoring at the Houses of Parliament in February.

John says: “Ultimately, our ethos is to improve the student experience, and we do that by both providing professional support staff, but also offering opportunities for students to get involved. Whether it is for their own professional development or simply because they want to help, we can help students develop their communication skills and their teamwork and autonomy, and it will contribute to their Higher Education Achievement Report.”

Student finance

From providing support and guidance on applying for student finance, bursaries and scholarships to providing financial assistance and advice for those most in need, the Student Funding Team plays a vital role in supporting the University’s students.

“We offer a service all year round, although our work begins with Open Days and Applicant Days,” says Kay Coutts, Student Funding Advisor. “We find that parents and students have lots of questions around funding and budgeting, so we try to provide them with as much advice and guidance up front, and as such try to ensure that the students receive everything they are entitled to.”

The allocation of the various University bursaries and scholarships available at Plymouth is mostly triggered automatically during the application process – but there are still times when students are faced with budgetary crises that require University support.

Kay says: “When students come to see us they may be dealing with a sudden and unexpected event that has thrust them into hardship, or facing ongoing financial difficulties, perhaps with rent, travel or childcare costs. We ensure that they have pursued every avenue that they need to – and we have available funds that we can dip into to help if appropriate.”

These include the Financial Support Fund, making sure those with the greatest need have access to additional funds; and interest-free short term loans to help with delayed funding. And they also link in with the Student Jobs team to ensure that work options are thoroughly explored.

“Our friendly team is here to help students immediately with the best possible advice,” adds Kay. “It’s about supporting them, but also helping them to support themselves.”

Student Services also provides an important link to the community, and one of Mel’s remits is to maintain close working partnerships with the likes of Plymouth City Council and Devon and Cornwall Police. That means that key initiatives such as Prevent fall under her purview, something closely aligned to her own teaching and research interests in public policy, sociology, criminology and criminal justice studies.

“It’s an enjoyable part of the job,” Mel says. “It’s an opportunity for us as a university to work with local authorities in the public arena and address some of the challenges facing our students, particularly vulnerable students, such as alcohol misuse, sexual violence, lad culture, and radicalisation – which in the South West is less about Islamic radicalisation and more about the Far Left.”

Supporting, empowering, enabling: all watchwords within the Student Services strategy, and an indication of the direction of travel for the function. “There is a difference between simply providing a service to our students and really engaging with them,” Mel says. “It’s about responding flexibly to the student journey, and that is what we have to be prepared to deliver.”

The new director

John Major was the Prime Minister and the Spice Girls were at number one in the charts when Mel Joyner walked through the doors at the University to become a lecturer in social sciences in 1996. Flying over from Toronto, where she’d been a postgraduate researcher and part-time teacher at York University, her plan had been to stay for a couple of years and gain some experience. It didn't exactly turn out that way.

“I think I can say that I've always been good at working with students,” she says. “I'm a teacher first and a researcher second (I've taught myself out of a bad mood many a time), and from my earliest days here, I've felt that students respond well to my teaching. So I was well-positioned when I became a scheme coordinator, and later an Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning.”

With a background in political science, Mel has specialised in public policy and administration and in quantitative research methods, and has scholarly interests in new media studies, information and digital literacy, and transformative pedagogy.

She still teaches on the undergraduate Sociology, Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies and Nursing programmes, and has held a variety of roles including Joint Social Sciences Scheme Coordinator, and Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning), initially for the Faculty of Social Science and Business and subsequently for the Faculty of Health and Human Sciences. 

When asked for her proudest accomplishment, Mel says: 

“That would have to be working with Sarah Anderson of Disability Services to create the’ case conferencing approach’ where the needs of disabled students are assessed in a meeting with multiple representatives, before a care package is wrapped around them. I'm a specialist tutor for those with disability and mental health issues, so it is an area that I am particularly passionate about.”