Designing 24/7 hubs for students

What does it mean to create student-centric support? Here, Kieron Broadhead outlines the process and challenges in re-imagining a 24-hour student administration system

Kieron Broadhead's avatar
5 Dec 2023
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Way back in 2018, we asked ourselves: how could we change the way we provided support to be truly “student-centric”? Students were telling us that we made it hard for them to be students and that they were expending too much effort navigating our complex systems and processes. One student neatly summed up this feedback. When asked about his experience of trying to change a module, he told me: “Well, you know that we all know student admin is rubbish!”

The immediate response from colleagues was to look to the wider sector to solve our local problems. “You should visit some of the examples of best practicewas one reply, so we dutifully set off on a fact-finding tour. We saw great examples of services, any number of beautiful desks, whole new buildings and bots, and all sorts of neat ideas, but lifting any of these smart solutions to Southampton to answer our problem didn’t feel right.

It was at this stage, right at the start of the process, that we realised we needed to understand our students’ experiences, so we could start with a blank slate. We needed to understand our problem in detail and design a solution that focused on our issues, not somebody else’s.

Take a leaf out of tech’s design manual

At the same time, we had a web programme running that was exploiting user-experience design principles, and I was struck by the way that this programme had spent lots and lots of time engaging users to understand what they needed.

We made the decision to adopt the same approach and run a comprehensive “discovery phase”. This significant investment in time and money added months to the start of our programme (one that people had hoped would be quick and simple). Selling this to senior colleagues took effort; copying someone else is fast and easy, but a lengthy discovery phase would change the nature of a project that was supposed to be a “quick win”.

Our discovery phase was more than worth it. We learned, much to our shame, just how hard we were making students work. How had we not noticed that we had 14 face-to-face helpdesk functions in our Student Services Centre, all with their own opening times, web pages and phone numbers? Over time, teams had tried to deliver great services to students, but this had led to us operating more than 200 email addresses and 82 student reception points. Nobody had decided to add complexity, but clearly we needed a prune.

Ask students what support they want

In addition to mapping our services, the process engaged thousands of students, physically following some to understand their journeys and asking lots of questions. This allowed us to answer the question: what do students really want? The answer was remarkably simple; they wanted one access point, physically and digitally, that was available at the time of their choosing and could help them regardless of the question.

Consolidate access to hubs and extend reach

It was at this stage that we made a series of big decisions: we were going 24/7/365; we were consolidating the access points to services down, as close as possible, to one; we would invest as hard in digital as in physical; and we would establish a co-design group of students who would help us to get the service right. The programme was structured into four work streams – people, processes, place and systems – and we brought together a big project team under each stream to get lots of engagement.

The outcome was a new operating model that transformed the way we delivered front-of-house services to our students, and our student hubs were born. Modelled on principles of “deal with as much as possible at first point of contact”, “if the issue can’t be solved, own it and solve it”, and “don’t make students work hard; work hard for the students”.

No matter how straightforward this all sounds, it was neither painless nor simple. Effectively closing 80-plus reception points was deeply unpopular with many colleagues internally. The strongly held view was that the loss of local support would lead to a fragmentation of the student experience. Some saw our asking all colleagues to start using new systems as adding to workloads, not reducing them.

Doing much of this during a pandemic offered some solutions; reception points had been closed for months anyway and many students wouldn’t know that previous service offerings had been any different from our new model. However, it added complexity to our staff-engagement activities.

What were our key takeaways from building new student hubs?

If we did this again, what would we do differently? I would start a more comprehensive staff-engagement process earlier in the programme and bring people who we knew would object in closer. I would also be much more open that we were designing for students and generate lots more data on what students wanted to answer the genuinely felt fears that this was reducing, and not enhancing, services.

What is certain is that any pain we felt has been more than worth the gain. We now have a comprehensive “always on” service for our students, we have hundreds of online resources, and we’re continuing to invest in our digital offering. We have handled more than 50,000 enquiries and solved over 80 per cent of them at first point of contact. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, and I know our students are too.

Kieron Broadhead is deputy vice-president (operations) and senior executive director for students and infrastructure at the University of Southampton.

The Student Hub: University of Southampton 24/7 Student Support has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Support for Students category in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023. Click here for the full shortlist. The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Liverpool on 7 December.

Academics and university leaders from across the UK and Ireland will come together on 6-7 December at THE Campus Live UK&IE to talk about institutional strategies, teaching and learning, the student experience and more. Join us for this two-day event in Liverpool.

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