An Interview with Professor Gwen van der Velden
Professor Gwen van der Velden works here at the University of Warwick, where she is involved in improving the student experience, and I recently got in touch with her to find out more about what she does and what she hopes to achieve through her roles as Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor for the Student Learning Experience and Academic Director of the Warwick International Higher Education Academy. Hers is a role that facilitates small-scale improvements to the student experience alongside an over-arching framework of more long-term developments, such as decolonising the curriculum, improving inclusivity and paying close attention to the student voice. It’s easy for us students to feel detached from university staff, and so sitting down to talk with Gwen was a lovely and enlightening experience, of which I share below:
– Tell us a little bit about yourself how you came to be where you are today?
I am an educationalist by background, originally Dutch and a former student activist. My career in Higher Education started with helping setting up a students’ union for a part of the Dutch university sector that wasn’t unionised previously. One of the first things we did was reclaiming student fees which the institutions shouldn’t have charged and that success got me into improving education. Later, but still as a student, I more or less fell into a role as teaching observer, helping science academics improve their teaching. From then on I stayed in Higher Education, although I moved to the UK, where I’ve held several different roles in improving teaching and student learning. My research field is HE policy and student engagement particularly.
I can’t help but like change. I’ve been a student three times in my life, always really enjoyed it, but always thought…this could be better. That’s partly where the motivation comes from. I’m also a mum of four children, one of whom graduated in Maths at Warwick two years ago. The second one is a student in the Netherlands and the final two still have a few years before they need to think about uni. I want their student experience to be the best it can be. I am also a trans ally, love travelling and am mad about our orchard and the beehive in it.
– What do you do and what is your role all about?
I have two roles: Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor for the Student Learning Experience and Academic Director of the Warwick International Higher Education Academy. In the former I lead developments across the university on improving the student learning experience, and in the second role I have the privilege of leading a community of educational leaders (staff and students) from across Warwick on enhancing teaching and learning. A lot of my work is with the Students’ Union, student representatives and students who are involved in a wide range of educational projects.
– What is the education strategy at Warwick and what does it mean for students?
Warwick isn’t an easy institution to get into, so those staff and students who do have a lot to offer. The Education strategy is about organising the university in such a way that everyone can contribute and succeed in learning and teaching at that high level. Warwick departments and schools are full of highly gifted staff and students, and each of the disciplines has its own approach to making learning (and research) happen, and we can support these different approaches by having good structures and organisation. That’s why we’re working on better IT and data systems (such as the popular MyWarwick app), on reviewing the assessment regulations and practices, improving module selection and course information, and better feedback systems for students so they can influence their study experience.
The Education strategy also sets out what is special about Warwick. Our various surveys and conversations with staff and students have shown that Warwick people like to reach beyond boundaries. We’re very ambitious. We seem to like learning from other disciplines than our own much more than in other universities. We’re also looking across the borders of the UK, with exceptional international experiences being on offer, such as the Erasmus programme and other study abroad and exchange opportunities, as well as having a real appreciation of our highly international staff and student community, and ensuring international approaches within the curriculum. We’re even eager to ensure we look beyond the boundaries of teaching, with many undergraduate students getting engaged in research activities such as the URSS opportunities, or by engaging with staff research within their studies. All that learning beyond boundaries is something the Education Strategy wishes to promote. It’s very ‘Warwick’ and that’s what we want every student to be able to enjoy.
All in all quite a big task, and of course, there are a lot of people involved in moving us forward. Students play a key role in this, and all our enhancement projects invite students to take part in the design, development and delivery of change, so we’re sure that what we do is relevant to them.
– How do you want to improve the student experience at Warwick and how will you go about this?
I think we can be very ambitious for Warwick, as there is so much great practice to work with. We have great interdisciplinary opportunities, internationalisation opportunities and student research ones too. But there are definitely aspects where we could do better. For instance, many of our assessment methods are quite traditional and we assess students quite heavily. It’s time we change that. In the coming years it’s going to be important that students and staff in departments work together to modernise assessment and feedback. This can involve things such as using a wider range of assessment methods which allow for more creativity and individuality for students, building skills that will be relevant in the workplace. Some departments are ahead of the game and we can learn from those.
We also know not all students benefit equally form the opportunities we offer, and that needs to change. Recent cross sector data gathering (through the Teaching Excellence Framework) show that we can do better and learn from other institutions to make our education more accessible. The Students’ Union at Warwick does a lot of great work here. An example is the ‘Decolonise the Curriculum’ project that the SU supports: we need to think harder about whose knowledge we cover in our programmes, how white and western it is, and whether we are critical of cultural heritage when we engage with new information and knowledge. A group of staff are working on anti-racist pedagogy to support this further and the History department is leading the way with their recent curriculum review too. I’d like to see that sort of change to make our education work for all students of all backgrounds. It will take time, but it’s absolutely worth going for.
And then there is a huge interest from very many students in their future employability. This generation, possibly more than any before, is aware of the challenge ahead, and we need to support students on that. That’s not just by careers advice, but also by making or teaching and assessment methods relevant to skills and attitudinal development that helps students when they’ve left uni. But that can’t be at the cost of academic rigour or a wider interest in critical thinking, and there is a lot of positive progress we can make by combining those interests.
But there is always more. We need to listen to students constantly, carefully and critically. That’s best done by much more than just surveys and this is why there is a lot of effort going into student representation, SSLCs, focus groups, joint staff and student project work and why we are increasing the involvement of students in university decision making. I am responsible for the Student Learning Experience and Engagement Committee (SLEEC), and when setting it up I decided to co-chair this with the SU Education Officer, who sets a good part of the agenda. By doing that, the student voice is not just responding to whatever the university proposes, but it is steering what gets discussed, and how we’re going to progress. That has to be the way forward to focus on the student learning experience: it’s done by and with students, because it is their education.
– Can you give an example of an effective project which has come out of the education strategy?
Welcome Week! What a thrill that was this year. The SU has asked for this for quite a while and I think there was common agreement that this would be a good thing to do, but it wasn’t till the strategic team pushed it through the decision making processes that it happened. Students made it clear that a good introduction week would help make sure students feel part of a community, find their way around university and get into a positive mode for learning. So this year we had the first Warwick Welcome Week and students gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up. It was a masterly piece of organisation with over 1100 activities, 111 student helpers and a very high level of engagement by students. In our recent Warwick Student Experience Survey we found students scored ‘institutional orientation’ with a 91% satisfaction, making us second in the country. I think it is absolutely clear that we should do this again for future incoming students, and the Education Strategy supports us in doing so.
– How can students get involved?
Students already are involved, and everyone benefits from their commitment. Students elect representatives, speak up in their departments, join student societies, SSLCs, projects and focus groups, and of course every students at some point fills out surveys (NSS, WSES, PTES, PRES) and module evaluations. We owe students enormous gratitude for doing so, as all these routes help inform us of what is working well and what could be better. And in the end it is their education, and they should insist it is the best it can be. There are always more opportunities to get involved. The SU has a raft of ways, but departments also appreciate active students who will work with staff on enhancing the student learning experience. Check out what the SU is working on, they always have projects or groups you can join that aim to change education. And for those students who really want to get much deeper into enhancing teaching and the student learning experience, have a look at the Warwick International Higher Education Academy https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/academy and check which of the staff or students in your department are a WIHEA Fellow. Talk to them, and ask to get involved in one of the many enhancement projects the Academy funds.
In our discussion, Gwen made the point that the changes that make the biggest difference to students are local changes, and that a lot of the work she, her colleagues and the Education Strategy does is about the structures put in place over a long period of time, by which time us current students will be gone. The changes made by SSLCs and departments are what can benefit students now, and so emphasised the importance of getting involved in the student experience, giving feedback, and participating wherever you can to take control of your own experience. Ultimately, it is students who can make the biggest impact.