Ben Lewis Cardiff University Head of Student Advisory Services reflects on changing lives for the better.
Before coming to work at Cardiff University I had a few occasions where this University touched aspects of other things I was involved in, so I already felt fairly familiar with the place and some of its people.
My first job was as a Studentsí Union welfare sabbatical officer at Aberystwyth University, which included contributing evidence to the first review of student funding in Wales led by Professor Teresa Rees, now our Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research. It also meant I was invited along to a few of Cardiff Studentsí Unionís summer balls which were always pretty special. After that I spent time as a Policy Adviser at the Higher Education Funding Council for England working with institutions across England on issues around student support and widening participation.
In 2004 I was Principal Officer for Wales for the Electoral Commission, the UK watchdog for party politics. I had recently spent time working as an independent observer working on elections in Northern Ireland. That had been an exciting thing to do but I had that feeling that nothing new was going to happen and that it was time to try something else. We had, of course, worked with a lot of UK universities including Cardiff University in our role on reporting on the conduct of elections in the UK where we contracted academic staff to research parts of our work. In particular the late Dr James Thomas, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies was always clear, professional, committed and unfailingly enthusiastic, a great ambassador for the University.
I saw this job advertised in late 2003, it was a move back to higher education working in student support. It was exactly what I was looking for. In particular it had the bonus of being in such a respected University and one which was, and still is, on the up.
It was a strange time to join a new organisation, the Dean of Students Office was being closed as part of the merger with the then University of Wales College of Medicine and I had a few months to make decisions about the services I was to manage before merger completed. On top of that a move to new offices on both sites provided an opportunity for change and new developments to the services we offered while also representing major change for the staff involved. The speed of this change and timing of my starting here led to some interesting discussions with colleagues about how best to proceed, and at times made my experience of different perspectives in Northern Ireland feel fairly tame!
I think I am lucky to have one of the most rewarding jobs at the University. I have colleagues in my teams who are knowledgeable, dedicated and talented. We are continuing to build up the expertise in our Student Support Centres to be among the best in the UK. We are experimenting with new ways of delivering information and services to students. In the autumn we will be the first UK University to provide advice and information for students via video web casts and plan to be among the first to experiment with live web chat advice surgeries to improve access for part-time students.
The work that is quietly done here makes a direct difference to peopleís lives every day. You canít always find a solution, or advise someone of a way through their issue, and have it work out 100 percent of the time, but it usually does. One of our student clients told us this in a feedback questionnaire recently:
ďIíve used the service more than once and itís taken a weight off my mind. Iím very impressed. I probably would have had to leave (University) otherwise but Iíve done so much better since (in my studies).Ē
I have spent my career thus far overlapping between politics and higher education, its sometimes surprising how much they have in common but one of the main things is that both of them, if they are done right, have the potential in so many ways to change lives for the better.