12 tips on how to work across a university

Alison Baverstock, director of The KU Big Read, offers a dozen tips for anyone trying to engage a whole university community

February 9, 2016
A team of people working together at a university
Source: iStock

I first heard of pre-arrival shared reading schemes for freshers while at an academic conference in the US. Research has shown that they can benefit enrolment, engagement and retention in universities by promoting a sense of community before students arrive.

Since I have long been interested in literacy and the encouragement of reading for pleasure, I was keen to develop something similar in the UK, and used an opportunity for staff-student research projects at Kingston University to first investigate and then launch The KU Big Read.

In August 2015, we sent a free bespoke edition of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy to every student about to join us, and invited them to discuss the book during the first weeks of term. The edition included questions for students to think about as well as an introduction from our vice-chancellor.

While many universities talk about “whole organisation thinking”, staff loyalties often nestle closer to their immediate department or administrative team. In getting this project off the ground, we had to think wider.

Based on what we learned, here are 12 top tips for anyone trying to engage a whole university community.

1. You need to be clear about your aims and objectives. There needs to be a central reference point, such as a website, to which all can be directed, summarising what you are doing and why.

2. Ensure all associated working and project consultation groups you set up are genuinely, and transparently, cross-organisational. If the project feels “owned” by any particular department or role, buy-in from others is likely to be reduced.

3. Secure early support from senior management. Students made the initial pitch to our vice-chancellor, and, from the outset, he was totally supportive, mentioning the project often and enthusiastically. Senior management are regularly required to represent the university, at both internal and external events, so it’s sensible to ensure that you update them regularly.

4. Establish early contact with the library/information professionals. Here we discovered an underpinning infrastructure that operates throughout the organisation, and of which academics are largely unaware. Library staff attend all the meetings to which academics contribute, and the librarians involved are called “academic staff”. As their chief professional satisfaction seems to come from ensuring that the right resources are available to those who need them, they can be terrific allies in spreading information. The (warm) library is the one location students are likely to visit each time they are on campus. And librarians, being individuals who have a professional interest in being able to find things, have an immense capacity for detail. We were consistently surprised, impressed and grateful.

5. Find out who else moves across the whole organisation. At Kingston, we made friends with those who manage delivery. With an overview of the whole university and insight into locations and opportunities you might not otherwise consider, get them on your side and word can spread quickly. Talking to them helped us understand the impressive speed at which goods pass through the university – as well as identifying money-saving options. We had our materials centrally delivered and then distributed across five campuses by KU staff.

6. When trying to get a message out to colleagues, the pre-existing management structure is there to be built on. Any new idea also needs champions, and here we found particular traction within groups of colleagues who had volunteered to be part of something not officially required of them: mentoring schemes; staff-student engagement groups; union responsibilities; embarking on or overseeing Higher Education Academy qualifications or presenting at internal conferences. It’s presumably for the same reason that employers taking on graduates are as interested in how they use their spare time as the nature of their qualification.

7. For similar reasons, try to locate all existing cross-organisational student groups: mentors; welcome connectors; ambassadors; those running societies. Most have newsletters and programmes to fill – offer them content and you may find it quickly gets reused and shared.

8. Engage the reception team. The first face of the university, those working on reception have an unrivalled opportunity to connect. They also overhear many conversations, including between those people who don’t understand what is being attempted. Our experience was that they really liked being involved — not least because it spread awareness that they have more to offer the organisation than just directions.

9. Talk to the communications manager. She passed on a very handy tip about how to estimate demand among staff. She had found that sending all staff an organisational (and sustainably produced) magazine resulted in regular emails protesting a love of trees – and many copies left unclaimed in pigeonholes. So rather than send every staff member a free book, we required colleagues to collect one from a library. Post-project surveys revealed that, in general, staff who collected a copy also read it – and such was the demand that we ended up having to reprint twice. The comms team also suggested and ran an accompanying Extreme Reading campaign on Twitter, which proved very popular.

10. Pay attention to how people like to be addressed. We picked up on sensitivities previously unappreciated. For example, it’s quite common in universities to categorise staff by what they don’t do (“non-academic”) rather than what they do (“professional”, “technical”, “support”, “administrative”) and this is not particularly appreciated. Similarly, we found a latent level of dissatisfaction among postgraduates about being excluded from surveys and other university sector monitoring mechanisms. For most master’s students, the location of their degree is the culminating academic brand on their CV; of course they want to be consulted.

11. Consult the data management department. For us, it was a wonderful resource, helping us plot the outcomes against year-on-year trends. Proof helps win over the still unconvinced.

12. Find out who lives locally. In our case, vastly more of the administrative and professional staff than the academic variety do, with lots of our alumni staying on after graduating. Our estates department estimates that one in eight Kingston homes has a university connection. This is an excellent basis on which to build stronger involvement – and cue project extension to local government, public libraries and schools.

A year ago, The KU Big Read did not exist. Now it is a project that is joining up Kingston University, across our five campuses and all roles. To be moving ahead with such confidence is evidence not only of management support, but of the extent to which the community was ready to be engaged. Our conclusion is that whole university strategies can take root, and quickly, but are more likely to succeed if you involve the whole organisation in their development.

Alison Baverstock is associate professor and director of The KU Big Read. She is the author of How to Market Books (Routledge, fifth edition, 2015).

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