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Advancing equality and diversity in universities and colleges


Embedding equality in student services

Sharing key messages and trends found in your institution's equality data can help to improve the student service experience in your institution.

Our 2014 guidance Embedding equality in student services aims to help student services managers and staff to collect data effectively, recognise trends and patterns of student engagement and offers advice on how best to communicate the findings across your institution.

How to collect data effectively

  • Standardise your monitoring questions and the point at which they are asked, across all elements of student service provision. It will allow your institution to identify trends more broadly across student services, as well as to compare different services.
  • Your institution should have a central monitoring system that will allow student interactions with student services to be effectively monitored and linked to the central student record and protected characteristics.

Confidentiality of data and who has access to the full information will need to be carefully considered.

Find out how the University of Sheffield and Liverpool John Moores University have adapted their central monitoring systems in order to collect and analyse equality data.

Collect data effectively >

Standardising monitoring questions

It is important that equality data is always collected and recorded in the same way. Standardising monitoring questions, and the point at which they are asked, across all elements of student service provision will allow your institution to identify trends more broadly across student services, as well as to compare participation rates between different services.

Central collection and monitoring

Institutions might need to develop or modify their central customer relationship management (CRM) system. Data collection priorities should be to:

  • collect student data from protected groups and link it to the student records.
  • have a system that will allow student interactions with student services to be effectively monitored and linked to the central student record and protected characteristics.

Connecting up equality data and information on use of student services to the central student record could enable services to examine the impact of engagement against retention, degree attainment and employability outcome.

ECU recognises that central administration, IT or equivalent services can be cautious about the collection and recording of equalities data, particularly about the newer protected groups (such as pregnancy and maternity and gender identity). Confidentiality of data and who has access to the full information will need to be carefully considered. However, the development of new CRM systems may offer opportunities to work closely with central administration or equivalents to address these concerns.

Sharing data between services

Analysis of student services data in isolation runs the risk of providing an incomplete picture of student engagement with support systems. To fully understand students’ engagement there needs to be data collection and sharing between the different parts of student services provision, as well between your service and equivalent students’ union advice services.

  • Explore ways individual services can share information about use across areas to establish an overall picture of engagement and take-up.
  • Consider how information is shared within the institution, and how it might be shared with students. This may include mapping the internal dissemination of data through the various committees responsible for student satisfaction, teaching and learning and equality and diversity. This can support coherent planning of policies and procedures relating to student equality information.
  • Develop a cross-organisation approach to monitoring and communicating information on equality, student satisfaction, progression and achievement.

This should enable you to better understand which groups of students approach different parts of the service. For example aggregate data may uncover that female students from India are overrepresented in their access of the student union advice service for immigration enquiries, but further analysis of the data finds that they are disproportionally over- or underrepresented in comparison to other nationalities in seeking academic information, advice and guidance from your service. Having this level of detail may allow all institutional services to target activities at relevant groups.

There may be concerns around data protection restrictions in allowing access to individual records. ECU recommends that data be aggregated and provided to relevant staff in student services.

For more information on data collection see Using data and evidence

Understanding patterns of engagement

  • Benchmarking your institution’s data against the national picture as well as other institutions can be helpful in identifying issues for your institution to address.
  • If your institution has a large campus spread across different sites it may be useful to look at if there are any equality issues in the take-up of different services by campus, focusing on type of course and protected group.

The University of Essex and the University of Brighton share their examples of how to collect equality data from groups less likely to engage.

Understand patterns of engagement >

Benchmarking

Benchmarking your institution’s data against the national picture as well as other institutions can identify issues such as whether the underrepresentation of any protected group is particular to its own context or a wider concern for the sector, and identify how these might be addressed. Benchmarking can enable:

  •  a better understanding of your data by providing meaningful comparators and context. For example, to assess whether the proportion of a certain protected group accessing discreet services is low, normal, or high, relative to appropriate comparators.
  • self-assessment of service performance.

Each year ECU produces a statistical report with a detailed analysis of national equality data returned by institutions to the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA). Institutions may find it helpful to use this data as a national benchmark.

Across campuses

If your institution has a large campus spread across different sites it may be useful to investigate if there are any equality issues in the take-up of different services by campus, focusing on type of course and protected group. This can help identify differences in take-up levels across the campuses to help feed into communication strategies, with students as well as with staff.

Where devolved systems are in place it may be useful to survey staff at individual academic schools to gather information about the various activities undertaken there. This can help central student services gain an understanding of what student support activities and equality and diversity projects are available remotely. This intelligence can help to identify good practice, areas of where additional support would be beneficial, and encourage a more collaborative, joined-up approach.

Satisfaction with student services

Identifying if there are differences in awareness and use of, and satisfaction with, student services by students with different protected characteristics can be particularly revealing. This can be particularly useful for instances where students might have less access or interaction with student services, for example, students studying at more remote campuses.

ECU recommends that you consider the following:

  • Conduct a broad survey of the student population and then examine whether responses differ by protected characteristic. This has the benefit of providing a comparator group to ascertain whether awareness, use, and perceptions of student services differ between certain groups.
  • Examine national datasets, such as the National Student Survey, at a local level to ascertain if there are differential rates of satisfaction among students of certain protected characteristics and correlate these to the open text comments they may have provided about your institution.
  • Examine other ways in which awareness, use of, and satisfaction ratings can be measured by protected characteristic – through surveying the broader student population, for example, or analysing other available datasets.

Multiple identities

Student services and related practitioners will be well versed in their understanding of students not acting as a homogenous group. The intersection of a student’s mode, level of study and discipline area with their cultural and social economic heritage, age, disability, sex, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality and personal circumstances (having caring/parental responsibilities, living with parents, being a care leaver) have the potential for broad ranging implications for their interaction with your institution.

Where top-line issues are identified and cross cut against other equality data the service will have access to more granular detail which can help define if targeted activities may be appropriate.

When communicating your equality data, consider:

  • Routinely sharing the information with relevant staff, working groups and committees
  • Reporting on who is using the service, when, and the types of enquires they have made
  • Highlighting trends and patterns of engagement
  • Tailoring the information to individual faculties or departments, relevant working groups and committees

The University of Kent has re-launched a staff Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) network in order to maintain formal and informal lines of communication.

The University of Brighton has a student timeline that staff can access, which ensures that messages to different groups of students are refined and targeted at key points in the academic calendar.

Communicate and share key messages >

Presenting equality data

Ideally information on use of student services by students from protected groups should be routinely disseminated to senior management, academic faculties (or equivalent), relevant working groups and committees to improve understanding of where underrepresentation in engagement with services at specific points in the student journey might occur.

The type of staff who may benefit most from this data may include:

  • Staff employed in student services, student experience and widening participation.
  • Staff and elected officers who sit on student experience and related working groups and committees whose remit cover student experience, retention and attainment.

When communicating your equality data, the following things may be useful to consider:

  • Reporting should show who is using the service, when, and the types of enquiries they have made. It should provide analysis which identifies any trends in use by protected group and make suggestions for further analysis.
  • Ideally reports should be tailored to individual faculties/departments, relevant working groups and committees. For example, noting high or low referral rates from these service areas to initiate further discussion or highlight a need for targeted support.
  • Where data is being presented to staff who have a role in referral or signposting services, it is useful that analysis considers the link between protected characteristic and participation in student services activities, retention, attainment and employability outcomes.

Maintaining lines of communication

Student services have a range of formal and informal lines of communication allowing for discussion of equality issues. Formal channels are through the equality and diversity committee, project implementation groups and other working parties and semi-formal projects.

Where informal structures exist it is worth considering how communication may be affected if an individual leaves or if the structure changes and build a strategy to ensure that these positive working relationships continue and lines of communication are maintained in these events.

Communication with departments

For some institutions with devolved structures, it can be a challenge tracking the welfare and support related activities that academic department, faculty or equivalents are undertaking.

Where this is the case it can be difficult to put structures in place to ensure that information is cycled between academic schools and central services, and that approaches are aligned. Approaches to mitigate the effect of devolved support services could include:

  • Running development days with practitioners drawn from across student service areas to pick up on key equality topics and establishing spin off working groups to look at specific equality issues identified.
  • Having equality and diversity representatives trained by student services but based in academic faculties/departments who get together to share common experiences, learning and good practice.
  • Building in ways to share data from and with devolved departments.

Providing training to staff who may refer students to student services

Where there is an expectation for staff members in academic departments to make referrals into central student services, it is important that they undergo an induction process which includes the responsibilities of the role, equality issues for students, cultural awareness and awareness of service provision.

Staff should also be introduced to the relevant central and school contacts so that they are able to effectively aid in information-sharing about academic related activities to central services and vice versa.

Creating a communications timeline

There are ‘pinch points’ at various points of the student journey where support for particular groups of students might be needed. The start of the year for first year and prior to exams were identified as critical times for drop-outs and the need for extra support. However, wider pinch points across different parts of the service are not routinely considered.

It is likely that there will be different pinch or crisis points for different groups of students dependent on mode and level of study and the intersection of this with protected characteristics. ECU recommends creating a timeline to identify what information is being provided by whom and when. This will allow your service to consider harder to reach groups (such as second and final year students, postgraduates, mature and part-time student etc.) and plan targeted communications for them into the timetable.