Retention and Success, keynote speech, University of Chester annual staff conference.

University of Chester annual staff conference, 13th September 2013.

Retention and success. staff conference1

Today I will not be speaking to you about how this year we achieved our highest student satisfaction rate, or how the union is the best in the North West or how we serve the best coffee on campus but I have been asked to speak from a student’s perspective about a real issue which is affecting each and every single one of our students and that is of course retention and success.

When we talk about retention and success who do we think is responsible? Senior management? Student support and guidance? Academics? departments? Catering? Chester students’ Union ? Careers? The students themselves?

It is time as an institution; each and every single one of us puts retention and success at the forefront of our agenda by actively engaging students and moving towards a system of students as partners.

So let’s begin by rewinding to 4 years ago to when I was an 18year old fresher, straight off the plane from Magaluf, ready to start a new life thousands of miles from my home (Well it was only 80 but it seemed far!). Within a couple of weeks it became apparent that I was one of those students. I was that student who barely turned up to lectures, I was that student who didn’t seem to fit in anywhere, I was that student who went home every weekend (and not just because I couldn’t work the laundrette) and I was that student who was ready to never return after the Christmas break.

Over the Christmas break I met with a friend over leftover turkey and I told her how I was feeling and she said; “drop out, what is keeping you there?” I said: “I love my housemates, I love going out, I love the Union and there is so much I want to do. I want to; captain the football team, do my badges and coach them, I want to raise thousands for charity, I want us to get team of the year, I want sports personality and I want to volunteer and teach in schools.” (I managed to do it all in the end) but her response was, “you are paying £3500 a year plus accommodation costs to play football?”

And that is when it hit me. That higher education is not just about getting a degree but the whole educational experience which does not necessarily come from sitting in a lecture theatre. University should be a transformative journey where there is no such thing as a glass ceiling as our students should feel like they can do absolutely anything whilst they are here. But it is down to us to guide them on this student journey of discovery – introducing them to the things which make Chester a unique environment; volunteering, sports, societies, sustainability, academia and participation.

However the transformative student journey starts long before they arrive here. This autumn marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Robbins report which stated that “University places should be available to all who are qualified for them by ability and attainment”. We must continue our outstanding outreach projects to ensure everybody has the right to Higher Education despite their background, needs and responsibilities. However, experience is linked directly to expectations. We must be transparent when we are marketing the institution in terms of hidden course costs, accommodation costs, and provision for our vulnerable groups of students through the access agreements.  Studies have shown that 50% of students are worried about not being able to meet their basic living expenses such as rent and utility bills.[1] And a quarter of a million students are working over 16hours a week to fit the gap between funding and the cost of living and education. We must do everything in our power to ensure our students are thriving rather than surviving during their time at Chester.

Here at Chester we have very good bursaries and access agreement but are we giving students a fair deal once they are here? Is it fair that we charge £9000 a year but then expect our students to spend £100s on books/ materials/ travel costs to placement? Is it fair we expect students to pay £130 for accommodation per week when their student loan doesn’t cover it? Is it fair we are depriving our students of personal development and success because they have to work to fit the bill of HE?

As you can see retention is not just about academic engagement, if the University and the Union are to become trusted and valued partners in the Higher Education sector, it is vital we are seen as open and accessible to all otherwise we will continue to lose students. We will also continue to lose students if we do not invest in facilities and buildings which already exist. It is fantastic we are opening new campuses but what about the ones we already have? For example at Kingsway there is still no library despite the continual feedback from students on the NSS, SSLM’s and exit interviews. Kingsway is not a building; it is a campus thriving on creative, innovative minds and the sooner we begin to invest in creating a community there the sooner we will improve retention rates in arts and media.


So let’s talk a little bit about retention…….

Chester is an exciting, creative entrepreneurial university to study. As we move forwards as an institution and up the league tables we are guided by the principles of student engagement and students as partners particularly through the work of the HEA, QAA and NUS.

Our students are a largely untouched source of innovation, rich and original ideas that can all too often be overlooked when developing ways to increase student satisfaction. This is something, that is written in various policies and quality codes but how can we make the transition from policy to practice where we have a true commitment to being one community of teachers and students.


The system we are developing will see the StARs as the new face of campaigns and change at the institution.

–          Students driving the agenda

–          StARs working in partnership with staff

–          StARs will make a positive difference across the whole institution.

–          We will start to move away from the complaints culture to a system which will enhance the teaching, learning and quality as a whole at Chester

How do StARs impact on retention?Updated

1. Firstly, the StARs will learn the meaning of retention and how to be a point of contact for struggling students. The training which they will receive will ensure the StARs understand where to signpost their peers to.

2. On the other hand, the StARs themselves are often students who do not traditionally engage therefore it is one of our main aims to create a community for the reps by creating a positive brand, and turning the system into something all students will want to get involved with in years to come.

The only constant in students’ lives is change, change in their fees, changes in employability prospects, change in governments but having students as true partners will help them grasp change and model it into something good for this University.

Students as partners is an area which is starting to creep into the culture here and it is fantastic to see that we are naturally moving towards this partnership as we share the same visions and mutual goals for the future. There is regular communication and with any partnership it needs to be built upon trust. Students have to trust that we are all here to do the best by them, the staff trust that student representatives will represent the students the best way we can, and I trust that the University of Chester is one of the best institutions in the Higher Education sector due to their genuine investment into students.

So if we are going to start to move towards students as partners;

  1. Choose partnership – lets choose partnership as an institution, not just the Union with the SMT but all of us.

1. Address the partnership culture – lets invest in partnership, it may take a long time but let’s start thinking of a vision. A vision whereby not one of our students are treated as a customer. As with any partnership it needs to be founded on equal responsibilities, transparency and honesty.

2. Work to break down barriers to partnership – that means if our students are struggling we need to have support in place and for partnership to work we have to start trusting our students.

3. Share responsibilities – We are all responsible for partnership, retention and success. If you want to go quickly go alone but of you want to go far lets go together.

4. Let’s keep the partnership under review – we can always work to spice the partnership up a little by using in time our elected reps to bring ideas.

So where do academic staff fit in?


Personal academic tutors are pivotal to ensuring we maintain the community feel which is grounded in our mission, vision and values.  Students at the University of Chester should not only be entitled to a PAT who knows their name but a PAT who cares. And I genuinely believe each and every single one of us has chosen to work at the university because we do care. We care because we are a university which thrives on our community and the sense of belonging spirit and we care because we have the ability to change thousands of lives, not just students in Chester but students and their families across the globe.

969122_586680174705344_1921071195_nThis year we ran the Above And Beyond awards in which 100’s of PATs were nominated for their outstanding contribution to helping their students. Here are a few key words and phrases from the different nominations which our students have said about you!

You have been inspiring, educating, motivational, fun, interactive, dedicated time, provided detailed feedback, they can take banter, enthusiastic, brought light to an otherwise boring subject, personable, helpful, willing, supportive, helped me overcome personal issues, entertaining, open minded, they have been a rock for me, made me feel that uni was a home from home, a friend for life, many of us know we would not have graduated without their belief in us.

For us, the AABs were a true reflection of what this University is founded upon; stewardship, community and working together as a team. Those who were nominated for the awards have made a huge difference to people’s lives. Simple actions have not only retained students but engaged them in various activities. Each day I hear of the brilliant practice of staff. For example over at Kingsway many of the staff have put their own books into a room to create a make-shift library, Pritch coached our rugby girls in his spare time and took them from middle table to the premier and to Europe, Julie Dulson won a national lecturer of the year award, lisa king encouraged her students to run a mental wellbeing campaign, and finally our double AAB winner Dr Neil Pickles has now been shortlisted for a Times Higher Education award for the most innovative lecturer.

We are all retaining and making successes out of our students each day without even knowing it. When I was ready to drop out at different points throughout the student journey, the staff in the Union were always there for me particularly Jane Hodson who would throw me out of the office when I was supposed to be at lectures and who would always give her time. Maria Skinner and Becky MT in SSG still inspire me today engaged me in volunteering and school mentoring and showed me the true value of giving back to the community. And last but not least Caroline Chappell, my medical law lecturer, at the point in which I felt like a number, she remembered my name.

In summary, retention and success covers a huge area of the student journey. From pre-entry and access right through the graduation and beyond. I am not here to offer perfect solutions which will engage each and every single one of our students in Chester, Malaysia, Narnia and wherever else we have campuses but if we are serious about this vision of students as partners in response to the Quality code, the HEA, and NUS we need to work together to turn policy in to practice, we need to trust our student body with having ownership over representation. The key messages are that:

–          Retention is worthless if the students are not successful

–          Success is about creating good graduates but even better citizens

–          To help retention and success we need to maintain our good PAT working relationships, we need to invest into our StARs system

–          And we need to be committed to partnership.

The bottom line is if we do retain our students but they have nothing else to show for their 3 years here apart from a scroll of paper and a couple of letters next to their name then we have failed them.

We know what we need to do for the future but let’s not forget to be proud of the achievements we have had as an institution, as a team of great influencers and role models. Throughout the academic year I would like you to think about the ways in which you can engage students, how through small changes you can make a huge difference. So my question to you today is what have you done to make you feel proud?

*Insert Video*


[1] Understanding the impact, a review of impact and effectiveness of student financial support in English further and higher education. NUS, 2012.


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