Blog feature image of online student services support

Building an ‘improved normal’ in Student Services

Authored by Neil Gillett, Student Services Manager (Advice and Hub), University of Plymouth

Days turn into weeks which turn into months. We’ve only been in lockdown since March but, for most, it already feels like an eternity. For University Student Services staff working from home due to the COVID-19 crisis, being on campus seems like a distant memory.

Adapting to this new way of working happened with relative speed but not necessarily ease and there have certainly been many challenges to overcome to ensure continuity of support for our student population. Most important was how to move services which usually rely heavily on face-to-face interaction to a remote online method – from initial triage queries in our brand new ‘first-stop shop’ Student Hub and figuring out how students could just ‘drop in’ online, to in-depth counselling sessions and recognising the lack of privacy which remote sessions could sometimes bring.

We’ve quickly had to embrace technology and upskill staff to new ways of service delivery while at the same time being mindful of the impact that these quick changes will have on students and our staff. Continuing to support students in crisis was high on our agenda, whether it be their mental health or financial hardship, and we recognised that asking students to return home may be sending them back to abusive or stressful family situations. We have rapidly developed new systems and processes to allow us to continue signposting quickly and effectively to key services, wherever a student may be in the UK or overseas, and rapidly shifted paper-based application forms online. Creativity has been vital. Listening to feedback from students and staff has meant we’ve been able to adapt our offer to new ways of supporting students with disabilities, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and international students unable to return home and in isolation.

It’s important to remember that our staff have also found it challenging and, at times, hugely demotivating. As with most Student Services staff, our teams have built their careers around face-to-face support and flourish by working with people – they’ve now been asked to work in isolation and see students on their computers. In addition to asking everyone to make massive changes to their ways of working, there has been uncertainty around what demand to expect and when we would be going back to campus. There have also been anxieties around how to support students not presenting and how to manage an increased workload created by the shift in our service delivery.

Despite the challenges, the current COVID-19 pandemic has presented us at the University of Plymouth with a real opportunity. To push through changes to archaic ways of working and give a much needed update to services for our students. Our aspiration is to be able to reach even more students to allow us to support even more of them to succeed through their University journey. Our new ‘first-stop’ shop approach and our one-to-one advice and counselling sessions have proven to work even remotely, and our online peer support groups have seen a surge in demand, thus creating new ways of ensuring students can find us and speak to someone wherever they, or we, might be.

We’ve also been reminded of the importance of staff well-being throughout this crisis and it’s allowed us to create new ways to support the staff who will make this all possible for our students. It seems like Universities across the country will all be offering a new way of learning for incoming and continuing students in September 2020. Here at Plymouth we won’t be offering a ‘new normal’ in Student Services – we’re on course for it to be an ‘improved normal’ for all our students.


For further student success insights, read our guide to scaling student support.