News Editor Becca Bashford talks to Professor Kelly Coate, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Education and Students, about the 2025 vision for the University of Sussex.

Words by Becca Bashford, News Editor.

The Badger caught up with Professor Kelly Coate, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education and Students, to discuss the “Learn to Transform” strategy and 2025 vision for Sussex. It includes radical transformations to teaching, learning, accessibility, wellbeing, and more, and places student voices at the forefront of these changes. 

Can you sum up what the Learn to Transform strategy is?

The Learn to Transform Strategy is my portfolio, in a way. It’s the education pillar of the overall vision for 2025, and I think it speaks really well to the values and ambitions of Sussex. One of its key aims is to make students partners in the decision making that we do as a university – it’s one of the things that I think could be really transformative in terms of the student experience. We’re looking at a whole range of ways of working with students, and bringing students into the conversation in really meaningful ways to help us shape their education. It has many other aims, such as inclusivity, connecting students extra curricular activities with their formal work, and pushing us to think in new ways about what we’re doing in the classroom. We also have an aim around kindness, we want our academic staff to think about kindness in the classroom and with regards to their students, so really it’s about human relationships and connections, and building relationships across the university community.

These goals all fall under Sussex’s 2025 strategic framework, which aims to “reimagine the pioneering spirit of the original purpose of our university, but for a new time and a new generation.” So, what does the future of Sussex look like to you?

I want to remember the original spirit of Sussex, when we were challenging the status quo and people were coming here because of that. Students were critically engaged with the world and saw Sussex as a place where they could make that a crucial part of their university experience. So for me, I want to reimagine what that looks like for the contemporary students. We want to understand what our students see that are critical, what they want to connect with, what they want to challenge, and try to find ways to bring that into the curriculum. This is already in place, but we want to celebrate it even more and ask: where else can we make this happen? We want to reignite academics passion in that, too. I think for a while, the pressures of ranking and funding made it easy to slip into the old “well, we’ll just do what’s safe” mindset. So when I go out and talk to people about this strategy, they get really excited.

The Learn to Transform plan states: “Students will routinely participate as partners in the development of their learning, in the discovery of new knowledge, and in the big decisions that shape the University” – what will this involve?

From September 2020, we will have a programme in place where we will employ students to work with us in two different roles. The first is Curriculum Consultants, which is hugely important. If a school wants to take up a curriculum review, we will bring in and pay students to take part in these reviews, and sit alongside the staff so the students are constantly feeding in their perspective. They’ll be working as colleagues to academic staff, which I think is hugely important for student engagement. We will also have “Change Agent” student roles, who will work more with professional staff and service teams who implement things like Welcome Week. We also want to find ways to get students more involved with research, so ensuring students work alongside academics in a research sphere is on my agenda. We have a really rich research culture here with leading academics, so we want students to feel the full benefit of that incredibly diverse research culture, whether that be through the modules they’re taking, or through schemes such as Junior Research Associateship, which I would like to strengthen and relaunch so students can take part in real research projects over the summer. 

There seems to be a focus on digitally enhanced education. What does this mean?

We rolled out Panopto last year, which allows us to record what’s going on in the classroom. We had a lecture capture system which was a bit outdated, and not all of the classrooms were enabled, but Panopto is enabled in every single computer and classroom. Every room is enabled for the audio and lecture slides to be recorded, and we’re working on ensuring video recording is implemented in every class too and uploaded onto canvas within 48 hours. Within the first few weeks of implementing the system there were thousands of downloads, students instantly starting accessing the materials. Students have said it’s a lifesaver. The main drive was accessibility, we want every student to feel like there as few barriers to their learning as possible. We’re also piloting new technologies such as instantaneous feedback on draft work and e-assessment methods. We want our education to feel like its enhanced with the best technology, not because we like shiny things but because it makes the student experience enhanced.

Can you tell me more about the new Student Centre, opening in 2021?

The new student centre will be a central hub. If you’re wondering how to access course materials, how to get a new student card, how to access counselling and so-on, that will be the place to go. It will be a flexible space for one-on-one help, places to sit and study, and it will be surrounded by retail and food outlets. We hope it will pull the centre of the campus towards that area, and I think it will really change the overall feel of the campus. 

And what about the Sussex Award scheme?

This will have to be a bit of a teaser I’m afraid, because it’s launching in September. We’ve called it the “Spirit of Sussex” award, and it will be an app where students can log their paid work, volunteer work, society work, and track their levels of engagement. Students will accrue points towards a bronze, silver, or gold award, and those points can be cashed in for an award which will be presented at graduation and will also be present on their transcripts. It’s a great thing to show to employers, as you can download your log after graduation. There’s also another exciting element to this which hasn’t been revealed yet: we advertised jobs to students to help create build the app, and we got over 90 applications! We want the award to be really student led, we’re really excited about it. 

There is also a focus on wellbeing and mental health, which is crucially needed at Sussex.  Are there plans in place to improve the current approach to mental health?

It will potentially be a transformational approach. We’re viewing it like a triangle, where at the very top you have some students who are in crisis and need specialist help, then lower down you have a lot of students who want to be proactive about their wellbeing and ensure they don’t reach that crisis point. To ensure this we want to start a conversation about wellbeing with the whole university community, and we want to run workshops alongside the Student Union which keep students at the forefront. We want to be more proactive and preventative, while also keeping in place the really crucial services we already have. 

The strategy also aims to create a fully accessible campus. Do you think this is a pressing issue Sussex needs to improve on?

This is going to be a big focus for the next few years. We want Sussex to be as accessible as it can be, and I think students are probably aware that with a lot of the listed buildings its really difficult to change the access, but we’re aware that if you can’t access it then it’s just not satisfactory. It’s a priority to make Sussex as accessible as possible which is a challenge, but we have a new director of estates who is really keen to make it happen and invest in it. With regards to the new student hub and the new student accommodation, we’re making them fully accessible from the get-go. For example with the new East Slope, there’s a lift in Bramber House that takes you to the top floor and then a link to the East Slope building next door. It’s not ideal because of the constraints of the building and the landscape, but we’re trying to come up with innovative solutions. 

What do you personally wish to achieve with the Learn to Transform strategy?

One of the things that really excites me about this role is the vision behind it. Being disruptive,  being innovative, being kind, I love all of it. I love the fact that we’re proud of the history and legacy of Sussex and I think if we can make all of this a reality, it would be the best thing ever. It’s an immense privilege to help make it happen, and it’s a hugely unique opportunity. A lot of universities struggle to identify what’s unique about them, but we work and study in a university that has a massive personality. I just love that about us and I’m excited to make the vision a reality. 

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