Improving student-led Support Groups: findings and recommendations
Student-led support Groups have long played a crucial role in fostering a sense of community, raising student concerns, and promoting equity of minoritised student groups at the Open University. Last year, we conducted a review of the three currently existing Groups, the Disabled Student Group, OU Pride and the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Students Group, to identify potential improvements to member engagement and volunteer retention. The project consulted Group members, Group Committees and students outside of the Groups via surveys and focus groups. It was guided by a Steering Group consisting of fifteen students and carried out by an OU Students Association staff member. This article summarises the key findings of this review and explores the recommendations aimed at addressing the challenges.
Identifying the Issues
Inconsistencies in the Groups’ offer to their members, fluctuating volunteer participation, and waning member engagement were the central concerns addressed in our review. These issues not only hindered the success of our Groups but also raised questions about their long-term sustainability. Our review aimed to determine the following:
Are the Groups relevant and effective for our students?
Are the Groups accessible to our students?
Is the Association providing adequate support to the Committees?
Key Findings and recommendations
What students are looking for: data gathered on what students expect from the Groups showed that the top five reasons students would join a Group for were:
Opportunities for online interactions
To provide representation at the OU (promote positive change)
Study related advice and signposting
To offer community among people with whom they may have shared identity or experiences
To provide useful resources relevant to the Group’s community
Students also told us that the Groups mostly fulfil these expectations, although they are doing so at varying degrees depending on the Group.
Recommendations for overall improvement on this topic included clearer messaging about the Groups’ offer and better signposting to services that may already exist outside of the Groups to avoid duplicating support that already exists.
How and where do students want to engage: students identified time as a major barrier to engagement as most students have little availability on top of their studies and other commitments. Activities that a student can engage in at a varied level and at various times of the week were preferred by most.
Also, students found some spaces safer and more welcoming than others; responses showed that students wanted a community space that would ideally offer the option of protecting personal data and being moderated.
Finally, more advertisement of Groups was identified as necessary as many students do not know about the Groups until their second or third year, whilst they really would have benefited from connecting to fellow students in a similar situation sooner.
The recommendations included improving the variety of the Groups’ activities on offer and providing a platform that meets the needs of our students. Better advertising is also needed, especially for new students and on the OU’s website in general.
Recruitment of Committee members: according to the Review, students felt it was necessary to keep the recruitment process of Committee members formal as it was in line with the expectations of the role. Elections were the preferred way of recruiting by most respondents in the survey. However, the staff team has found that nominations and voting numbers are consistently extremely low in Group elections and is common that elections don’t result in full Committees despite the considerable resources employed to carry them out.
Our recommendation was to try a mixture of approaches to recruitment to determine if there is a more effective way to recruit and retain volunteers whilst also retaining the element of the Groups being student-led. Finding ways to use our resources in more efficient ways was deemed necessary to widen the support we can offer to other student groups with emerging needs for our provisions. During the April meeting of the Student Leadership Team (SLT), the SLT approved our recommendation. Details of this project can be found in this Hoot article.
Induction and training of Committee members: Committee members told us that availability is a considerable barrier to being more active in their roles too. At the same time, more training and guidance are needed to be effective in their roles.
As part of the recommendations to support the Committees, we drew up a list of induction activities and ongoing support such as sessions on effective strategy building and the development of an online volunteer hub where all necessary resources for the volunteer role can be found in one place.
Some of the recommendations outlined in the review have already been implemented or are in the process of being put into effect, resulting in promising improvements.
For instance, some Committees have already received more comprehensive induction training, including a session on accessibility considerations to ensure that the Groups are inclusive and welcoming spaces. The training material is being transformed into a self-study module to make sure the information is available to all Committee members at any time suitable for them.
Also, representatives of each Group had been invited to a series of collaboration meetings. The aim of working together is to enhance communication strategies and to improve the visibility of intersectionalities, acknowledging students’ multi-faceted identities and barriers they may face. One of the outputs of this initiative is a quarterly, joint Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) newsletter that will feature each Group as well as other EDI related updates from the OU Students Aassociation. You can receive a reminder of each new edition by signing up for the Groups on their respective webpages or in the Association’s newsletter for which you can sign up via this form.
Finally, a new and exciting communications platform is being introduced soon that will offer many of the functions that students asked for as well as being linked to the OU sign-in details for easier access, ensuring a safer and more user-friendly space than some of the currently used platforms.
Despite some of the advances mentioned above, some recommendations require further clarification and work. The establishment of how new Groups can be formed is a work in progress, with ongoing efforts to make sure that every student can present their request directly to the decision-makers; the Student Leadership Team and (where necessary) the Board of Trustees.
Moreover, the development of robust feedback mechanisms is still in its early stages, with discussions regarding the most effective methods ongoing.
In the meantime, however, we would love to hear your thoughts, comments and ideas for improvement via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.