The Student Services conundrum: Part 1 – setting the context

FlinConSign

Me: ‘You know you can make this purchase online and you won’t have to wait in a queue here, right?’

Student: *shrugs shoulders* ‘Yeah, but I’m here now anyway, so I might as well wait’.

This was a conversation, or a variant thereof, that I had more times than I can remember during the last week of February and first week of March this year. As you may already know, I accepted a role almost one year ago at Flinders University to lead the creation of a centralised student support centre, which went live in October last year, and which met its biggest test at the start of Semester 1 last month.

It was these many conversations that, about three weeks ago (just as the smoke was clearing from the start of semester frenetics), started off a blog post in my mind that I’ve been struggling to write ever since. It was only on the counsel of two people very close to me that I realised the post (which was seeming even more long and rambling than my usual efforts) was actually three separate posts, and should be written as such.

This post marks the first in the trilogy.

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Student retention – not how, but why

For the last two days I’ve been in attendance at the Strategies for Student Retention conference in Melbourne. The conference was an interesting mix of background information on retention stats in Australian higher education, strategies to improve these retention rates, arguments around the concept of students as customers, and plenty of discussion about the challenges that lay ahead for higher education. To summarise the themes of the conference in five points:

  • attrition at universities is a thing;
  • some of it is largely unavoidable, and relates to external factors in the lives of students;
  • some of it correlates to student demographics, but to varying degrees;
  • sometimes behavioural indicators can predict it;
  • sometimes intervention strategies can help students stay on if the challenges they are facing can be worked around.

I’m not going to spend time going into more detail on the above though – there are plenty of fine scholars already doing that far more justice than I can here. I will however demonstrate the variation of opinions on the matter by sharing some responses to the following question I posted on Twitter:

If I had a dollar to spend on increasing student retention, where would it be most effectively spent, and why?

Here are some of the responses I got…

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On conferences

I admitted before the start of this week’s SSCC conference that I really had no idea what to expect. Since bidding au revoir to the edtech community earlier this year I’ve been on a steep learning curve in the world of student services, and this would be the first opportunity for me to meet with a couple of hundred peers working in this area. Like Barnaby Joyce wandering into a live radio interview I made naive comment about my wide-eyed wonder of what the conference would be like into the Twittersphere and received this gem back from Mark Smithers:

  
I am glad people like Mark exist. For every kool-aid drinking happy-clapper like me, there needs to be an equal and opposite force, in all their curmudgeonly glory. It promotes critical thought for those who are willing to reflect on it. It stops us all from blindly believing the hype.

In this case, it spawned a blog post, because as the conference draws to a close, I can see he was absolutely right. Now at this point I’ll also say that the presentations within the conference were, for me, excellent. I could write another whole blog post on the content, but for those already working in university student services it might not be anything new. For me however, the sessions alone made it worth coming. But this post isn’t about the content, it is about the networking.

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