CDN Conference – Enhancing The Student Experience

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CDN’s November Conference, held at City of Glasgow College, attracted almost 200 delegates, who came to hear from a range of speakers about how the college sector can work to enhance the student experience and raise attainment.

City of Glasgow College Principal Paul Little kicked off the event. He said: ‘Our ultimate goal is to let students flourish. Students nowadays have much higher expectations.’

‘Colleges are playing a pivotal role in addressing the skills gap’, he said, adding: ‘We want students to excel and our student experience strategy reflects that. I’d like to thank students and all staff – including those that work behind the scenes.’

The keynote speaker for the event was Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education. He commended the hard work of students and staff, citing recent statistics from Scottish Funding Council, which showed that over 95% of college students go on to a positive destination – such as further study, training or employment. Statistics also showed that, in 2018-2019, over 90% of full-time students were satisfied with their college experience.

The Minister stressed however that more needs to be done. He said:

‘The world is changing. The landscape of colleges is changing, so we must continuously improve, ensuring everyone’s attainment matters, so that students not only enrol, but stay on the course.’

Liam McCabe, President of NUS Scotland, outlined three key areas of support that he believes are vital for an enhanced student experience: student support and funding, mental health, and strong Student Associations.

He told the audience that some students are barely surviving in education, adding: ‘There is still a lot more that we can and should be doing for students in Scotland.’

Liam emphasized the need for colleges to have mental health strategies in place. He said: ‘We want to ensure that college students have access to the best mental health support available.’ He welcomed the recent news that the Scottish Government is investing £20 million in additional mental health counsellors at colleges and universities.

He went on to say that more change was needed to address disparities in income entitlements for students on the same course, as well as reviewing support for disabled students.

Next up was Eve Lewis, Director of sparqs Scotland, the national agency for student engagement. Eve has been working with colleges for around 10 years and believes that Student Associations have grown from strength to strength.

Sparqs use student feedback to develop teaching. They want to encourage college staff to ask students what they want when it comes to learning: ‘Students are experts in their own learning and there needs to be an element of openness and trust. It might just be a different way of learning that students need.’

Eve added that the Sparqs team will continue to work with students across all levels, asking them what they think about their experiences. She concluded by saying: ‘We take feedback from students really seriously.’

Dee Bird, Head of Learning and Quality at Scottish Funding Council, spoke about the importance of connectivity across the college sector to ensure the improvement and enhancement of the student experience.

‘We need to be responsive to the rapidly changing role of work to cope with ongoing change and have courage to take action,’ she said.

She added: ‘We must encourage students to feel included, valued, and appreciated. We need to create a sense of belonging. We must challenge and weed out racism in our colleges – we must take action.’

Delegates also heard from West Lothian College’s Chef Lecturer Paul Devonshire, who worked for 12 years as Head Chef at Gleneagles Hotel. His aim is to inspire chefs and get students excited about cookery. Two students from West Lothian College, Tyler and Nathan, explained how they benefited from travelling to France with the College on an Erasmus exchange. Audience members were inspired by the students’ confident, funny and enlightening presentation.


The penultimate presentation came from Simon Hewitt, Vice Principal at Dundee and Angus College, who spoke about data-led decision making. He argued that data should be telling college staff where the gaps are. He explained that around four years ago, when he first started working at the College, the team were facing a problem: ‘Applications were declining, so we thought up lots of questions that we had no answer to. I wanted to know where applications were coming from and was quite surprised to find out that we didn’t have the data to show this.’


Simon advised sector staff to get their data into one place where they can start analysing it. ‘Data underpins all the decisions we are making,’ he said. He shared how the College team took the decision to change how they were marketing courses, and that the data they were interpreting became a strategic driver in how they recruit. He finished with the question: ‘Are you utilising your resources as best as you can?’

The final speakers of the day were Fife College’s Student Adviser Fiona Morrison and Student President Carol Hunter. The pair explained that Fife College is the first college in Scotland to have Care Experienced Officers. The pair spoke passionately about the ‘We Care at Fife College’ campaign, which supports and celebrates the success of care experienced students throughout their journey at Fife College.

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