Celebrating STEP4Excellence

Towards the end of last week, a small crowd gathered in the new Taliesin Create in order to mark the end of STEP4Excellence and to celebrate all that it had achieved over the last three years. As we gathered, there were those who asked exactly what it was that this programme, aimed at creating a step change in student experience at Swansea University, had actually achieved. They were finding it difficult to identify anything very specific.

As we listened to the various presentations, however, from staff and students who have been involved in the programme over the last three years, two answers emerged in response to these initial questions. What became clear is that a number of things that we now take entirely for granted within the life of the University, originated in, or were inspired by, elements of STEP4Excellence. This showed just how well embedded the programme had actually become in the life of the University. The other answer came in the first presentation. When the programme was originally established, in September 2015, we identified four themes including learning and teaching, student engagement, academic and pastoral support and culture change. The first presentation opened on the theme of culture change. This was the strand of the programme, we were informed, that never really came together, that could never identify any specific activities to take forward. Looking back over three years, however, and at all that the programme had achieved, it was clear that it was in the area of culture change, across the whole University, that STEP4Excellence had had its most substantial impact.

STEP4Excellence was launched with a visioning day to which academic staff, professional services colleagues and student representatives were invited and encouraged to think creatively about what it was that could truly transform the student experience at Swansea. Nothing, we said, would be off the table and we encouraged colleagues to think big and to think the unthinkable. It was on that day that the four initial themes were established, with academic and pastoral support being added as a theme by the students themselves. It was also on that day that we established the principle that each theme was to be co-led by both a member of staff (whether academic or professional services) and a full-time officer from the Students Union. We were very lucky in that many of the officers at the Union from that year also stood for the following year giving two full years of close student co-operation and leadership within the programme. This was essential for the success of many elements of STEP4Excellence, but also underpinned the substantial culture change that the programme helped to instill.

Many activities that we now take for granted, or are piloting and moving out across the University, came out of this initial work. This included the transformation of personal tutoring into academic mentoring and the establishment of the student life network that was set up to transform student welfare support. The growth of student participation and representation in student forums, at all levels within the University, was also one of the primary achievements of the student involvement in the programme. We also developed projects around co-creation in assessment and feedback, the reinforcing of student led academic societies, renewed student engagement and feedback processes, the exchange of student representatives with other universities, and, with more emphasis on staff, the development of a renewed CPD process for teachers. In each of these projects it was the partnership between students and staff that led to transformational proposals and, in some cases, creative and radical approaches to long standing projects. The number of students who are now actively involved in planning and implementing activities across the University, from academic societies within subject areas and departments, through to student representation on all our major University committees, has grown significantly over the last three years, and that, apart from any of the specific projects, has led to a clear culture change across the institution.

Towards the end of the celebration colleagues from the College of Engineering gave a presentation that brought together a number of the threads and initiatives involved in STEP4Excellence and showed how, through a concerted and combined effort between staff and students, they had set about to transform the student experience within the College over the last year. This included giving student representatives from the various programmes a much higher profile within the College and using a wide variety of very innovative methods of engaging with students and involving them in decision making. The metrics that were offered, based on the student experience survey, show that even within one year these activities have made a significant difference to student satisfaction across the College and it is clear that this work will continue to grow and develop even though STEP4Excellence as a programme will now be wound down at the University level.

STEP4Excellence was, as I said, established through a joint initiative between staff and students, and at all times was co-led by academic staff, professional services staff and students. Three years on, however, much of what was initiated by the programme, has become business as usual, and is being picked up by various bodies, committees, or College initiatives, such as that in Engineering. The current, and incoming officers at the Student’s Union, however, have far less investment in this programme than their predecessors. They have different agendas, different skills and new, innovative ideas that they want to take forward beyond STEP4Excellence. It is time, therefore, for STEP4Excellence to move out of the way and for a new approach to student experience to be explored. We have to go back, perhaps, to the visioning event, engage with a new body of students, in a very different world, with different priorities, and to ask, once again, what it is that we at Swansea need to do now, in 2018, to once again make a step change in student experience across the University. That is something I look forward to leading through into the new academic year and beyond.

Finally, therefore, could I take this opportunity to thank all the many colleagues, academic and professional services staff, and our students, for all the hard work that they have put into STEP4Excellence over the last three years. we can all be very proud of all that it has achieved, particularly the dramatic culture change in student engagement across the University.

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