Staff and student engagement: a strategic essential, not a dark art

A university’s potential just cannot be realised without genuine engagement and internal communication.


Contributed by John Vinney, Vice-Chancellor of Bournemouth University, May 2012.

Deciding on the strategic direction of your institution requires time and hard work; and, as most leaders will tell you, making progress on the journey in that direction requires similar dedication. We don’t attempt it in the pursuit of a thankless task, of course. Alighting on the right strategy for your institution, articulating it well, and getting there in a decent time frame reaps countless rewards for a university – be it increased recruitment, research profile, high levels of student satisfaction, or any other number of drivers. There is one particular piece of work which I believe is absolutely essential to that journey, which has the added advantage of being both thoroughly enjoyable, and enables you to deliver your vision and establish your clarity of purpose: genuine engagement of your staff and students.
When I became Vice-Chancellor of Bournemouth University 18 months ago, I wanted to engage staff and students in our vision and values right from the beginning, as we began to establish our goals for 2015 and 2018. I started with a series of staff conversation events to shape the outline of the University’s vision, ensured that the Students’ Union (SU) was engaged, and then hosted a number of focus groups with staff and students to refine the vision and values further. Bournemouth University is blessed with a particularly proactive and effective Students’ Union (they are nationally recognised for their work on student feedback and representation), who followed up with a series of visioning events to explore what the University’s new vision means to students and how we can make it come alive for them. We also took a similar approach when we developed the University’s new Strategic Plan earlier this year. The point of this is not just that it is a nice thing to do (though it is); this is what helps us deliver our vision. Our 2012 staff survey revealed that BU can be proud of its high levels of staff engagement, which have led to an overall staff satisfaction rate of 84%, with 80% of staff also reporting that they know enough about the University’s Vision & Values. 
Staff are particularly important when you’ve identified a distinctive vision; it’s relatively achievable to have a vision of distinctiveness for your institution, but living and breathing that distinctiveness is much, much harder. Ensuring that your staff have an understanding of how they’ll contribute is essential. At Bournemouth we’ve grouped our strategic plan into academic themes and enabling themes; it’s a 70-page document that goes into a lot of detail, but it’s important to be clear on what you expect the university to deliver. For example, all project proposals here have to state which part of the vision they’re supporting, before they can be signed off. To take it further, we’re now converting the strategic plan into an interactive map that will enable people to see how it all connects together, and to search for the content that’s directly relevant to them. 
Students are also able to help you make the long journey in the strategic direction you have identified. In addition to my regular briefings with staff, I have started a termly VC video blog for students and I have monthly meetings with the SU. I’m always keen to hear more from the students, so we’re starting a practice whereby a student will get an invitation for coffee and cake with me in the student refectory. Allowing space for this dialogue enables me to understand what students want for their university. It’s helpful for them too: when the recent NUS walkout was scheduled for 14 March, I contacted the SU president and suggested we have a ‘talkout’ instead. I offered to have my door open for any students who wanted to come to discuss issues with me; they took me up on it, and there was no walkout at Bournemouth.
As well as listening to staff and students, we invest in them to keep the community strong and the vision real. Students tell us what is important to them, such as final years wanting more contact time, and we respond to it. We also now have a dedicated student communications role – I think this is crucial if we are going to be sure what messages we’re giving to our students. We also encourage feedback from our students. For example, we have a Vice-Chancellor’s award programme to recognise staff achievement. Some awards are organised by the university; some are staff awards nominated by students; and we are increasingly tying this to aspects of our vision. We also have ‘fusion’ events – where staff can present how their work contributes to the three key areas at BU of education, research and professional practice. These are 3-hour, working lunch seminars which we hold every few weeks. It’s an open invitation: staff self-nominate to present, and there is always either me, a DVC or a PVC there to give the keynote. Our next step will be to open these fusion events up to students too.
This is what I mean by ‘genuine’ staff and student engagement. By consistently doing the initiatives I’ve described above, I know my staff and students are equipped to talk about what Bournemouth stands for to any of their contacts or networks. And the evidence and the feedback I get show me that this really works: we are already part of the way to becoming what we want to be.

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John Vinney is Vice-Chancellor of Bournemouth University.

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Topics: Leadership.