Our Sector: Community Engagement (and Satellite Campuses)

In this piece Rob Henderson, Student Living Manager at Nottingham SU urges us to avoid the trap of king that students love us and all the services we provide, with lessons for any of us with multiple campuses, faculties or identifiable communities.

For around 100 years, Woolworths offered a range of services to all and sundry – tailoring, books, and latterly CD’s, video games and most famously Pick ‘n’ Mix. For around 100 years, if you needed something doing reasonably well, of a reasonable quality – you could bet your bottom dollar Woolies would satiate the need. In essence, Woolworths was a jack of all trades, master of none. And for 99 of those 100 years, this approach worked.

Until e-readers were invented and mp3s took over the music charts; and until other similar stores opened, offering more expertise, cheaper products or both. By the end consumers were questioning the purpose of Woolworths and the value it offered. The company that had outlasted the Great Depression, two World Wars and five monarchs was in the end shut down by consumerism.

The consumer driven age has made experts out of all of us; people of all ages have more access to more knowledge than ever before. Hiding behind screens and typing furiously we barter, complain, urge, taunt and charm services into giving us more for less. Rightly or wrongly, many of us will have suffered at the hands of keyboard warriors – both colleagues and students we support.

My argument is that the traditional Students’ Union model for engaging with students where they live and study (i.e., our members that don’t walk into our building and scream out to be engaged with) is akin to that of Woolworths.

We offer similar products, moving gradually and developing new systems occasionally – with the base offer remaining the same. We rely on the product we’ve always delivered; and for satellite campuses and community outreach, we often have one paid staff member who delivers many of our services in these areas. The theory is that having one person there during work time, who delivers a reasonable level of expertise, is the way forward. Jack of all trades, master of none.

As Woolworths has proven, shops and services can no longer exist purely physically; consumers want to access specialist services 24/7. There is a thirst to be able to contact a human-like expert at any point, convenient or otherwise.  So, what can we do to ensure our members are getting equitable yet expert services, regardless of study site or living location?

The answer lies in our current resource levels and a slight change in tactics. Here at the University of Nottingham Students’ Union (UoNSU), we have been utilising an insight based approach for three or four years now; by gathering student opinion (within a range of realistic parameters, naturally) we have been able to ascertain what students want and need when they exist away from our primary campus. Rather than taking the proposed solutions verbatim, we are then using our professional expertise to identify the problem the solution is trying to solve – and then solving it based on what is actually possible.

Sometimes we can’t solve problems. But this is the real world, and we aren’t afraid of having tough and transparent conversations with our students – especially the ones who are creating change.

We asked ourselves why we wouldn’t give the students who do not live and study on our “primary” campus readily available access to the experts from each service? Need some finance help? Great, the Finance Manager will be out in your local cafe on every Wednesday in term-time to mentor you. Want your house contract checking? Cool, we’ll be hosting drop-ins with a Welfare Adviser every Thursday afternoon on the agricultural campus. What happened to that free bus? Here’s the Union’s lead on that project to give you a full update.

Even those of us that have single campus environments will have research or hunches that students of a particular type, faculty or age will be more likely to visit us. Getting services and experts out and about around campus – not just “sabbs on tour”- helps.

Never be afraid of letting them get what they want from elsewhere; help them! It’s good customer service and you don’t need to compete with already-established services. So what if they’ve taken it upon themselves to ask somebody else for Finance help because it was a weekend? The fact is they are shaping their own experience, and their interactions with their Students’ Union are likely to have empowered them to do that.

With increasing limitations on our time as staff and ever-growing expectations from our students (particularly in the grand era of £9k fees), it is hard to advocate these types of service change. We’ve been doing this for four years at the University of Nottingham Students’ Union – advocating for all departments with a student facing service to be taking this out to other learning sites and community areas.

The bottom line is – student satisfaction with UoNSU at geographically diverse sites has significantly increased.

There are still times when a central service is more useful – particularly exam periods where huge revision and learning activity takes place on campus. This theory is not about recreating the same solution at every on or off-campus site; it is about creating a more bespoke solution that meets students’ needs, rather than wants.

For example, at UoNSU – we aren’t likely to require a full-time Advice service at our agricultural campus. Instead, through taking our insight based approach, we can determine flash points throughout the year and ensure a Welfare Adviser is on hand to deal with any issues that arise. When new student committees are elected in these areas, we can allow for the extra support in the yearly work plans of our student group development co-ordinators. The list of professional staff that visit these sites to interact with students goes on.

Essentially, rather than having one person that delivered seven services to a whole campus – we now have seven teams delivering seven services. The equivalent resource increase for the outlying campuses and community areas is effectively sevenfold, whilst the resource implication on our main building is relatively negligible- because we are still here most of the time anyway.

Overall – don’t be a Woolworths. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that students love us and all the services we provide. In this sector, standing still is as good as going backwards – and we’ve seen what can happen to organisations that rely on their consumers remembering the good old days. The future for inter-campus engagement is bright – but only if we harness our current resource in the right way.


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