We recently had the opportunity to chat to Reena Kaur, Student recruitment and access officer at the University of Keele and the new Chair of HELOA, having stepped up from the Vice Chair position last Friday.
Heather: Hi Reena, thank you for agreeing to talk to me, how is the prep going for the HELOA AGM?
Reena: It's going really well, the few days before the conference is always calm before the storm so absolute kind of “right everything’s fine” energy and then the inbox will explode with 5 or 10 emails of people needing to make changes to things.
Heather: I feel like that is always the way, you know you can plan something to the 10th degree and then all of a sudden it just all collapses. I wanted to ask how you went about getting the role you hold at HELOA and were you always interested in the association?
Reena: I first joined the Higher Education system in 2016. I had been a student ambassador throughout my Undergraduate degree. I was able to identify that I enjoyed working with students and the handling of events so that led me to student recruitment and widening participation.
In 2018 the opportunity came up to apply to be HELOA’s new practitioners conference manager and I was a bit nervous about it as I heard it was a popular role, but I went for it and was successful. I started running the conferences and got to meet people across the wider UK Sector, gain an understanding of what people want to do with their roles to influence and inform young people's decision making. I did that for two years and I grew our conferences from 50 delegates up to 90-100 new practitioners, so that was really great.
The opportunity then came up to run for the Vice Chair training post and I was successful and then Covid hit. I had a very interesting challenge of actually taking on the conferences at a time when I had to be thinking in a new and creative way. I was coming to the end of stepping down and conveniently the UK chair position came up. The thing I am positively looking forward to this year is we are planning on expanding the association and looking at our equality, diversity and inclusion. I am sure many people will say that it's a very white middle class environment and over the years I've tried to encourage more diversity. A main reason for me taking the role is; I thought that I can't just talk about it from the side lines, I have to put my name to it if I want to see the change, making me a bit of the change. Which is very Cliché.
Heather: No I think it's very true, change doesn't ever really happen until people do get to see it and it becomes the norm. It's quite a lot to put yourself out there, if you are a minority or group that doesn't have the representation it needs, I think it's really brave of you.
Reena: Yeah, for my six years or so now, I think for the longest time I was the only. Our UK Committee is 30 people, and I was the only ethnic minority for the longest time and then I was the only one on the executive committee.
Heather: Do you think the main problem is people not knowing that these options exist and that these roles and this route is available to them?
Reena: Absolutely, yes. I think quite a lot because it is a volunteer role, and this sector has gotten increasingly busy following the pandemic with a lot more work and expectations. There is a nervousness to taking on a role within the HELOA atmosphere, but it is very manageable and flexible. We encourage people to talk to their managers because it is professional development, and their experiences should be helping their career not jeopardizing it.
Heather: And it gives connections, I was looking at HELOA and what it does and a lot of it is around the idea of “Best Practice” and all of that will make the job easier, giving you processes to follow.
Reena: Absolutely, I think some of the things I would say from my time in the sector, a lot of the best insights and nuggets have come from being on the UK Committee, you've got access and direct access to 30 individuals working across 30 institutions in different roles, so it's pretty unique.
Heather: I wanted to come round to your Master’s in Education and Social Justice and to find out if it was your work that inspired you to take that course?
Reena: It was yeah, I love going out to Schools and Colleges, I'm from a working class background myself but finding out I am doing the right thing for the right reasons and being able to underpin that with more research and explore the wider thinking around participation was important.
Heather: Has there been a key takeaway with the course that you've noticed has changed the way you work?
Reena: I identified that we often encourage students to go to University and the main selling point of that is career and I think that has been a negative message as we are not encouraging love of learning or progression into PG and PGR, and that is why there is such a deficit/not enough working class ethnic minority students in Postgraduate courses or Postgraduate research courses. This causes us to have a misrepresented academia workforce which does not represent the student body. The big takeaway just being that our words and our actions do have an impact from a longer perspective.
Heather: Do you think there's anything that massively needs to change that comes from higher up than your job role and what you can do?
Reena: So, this is one of the reasons I wanted to take on the position of UK Chair, as HELOA UK Chair is fortunate to sit on a lot of advisory boards such as UCAS council and some policy makers sit in on those as well so I wanted to get into the room so I can have these conversations with people. Currently the biggest problem is, from the perspective of those of us who work in University, we do not see anything as competitive, we are a unique association that is all about best practice. I think Government and policy still do not see us that way as there is still a marketisation of higher education to go to university for this reason rather than because of a love of learning.
Heather: It makes me think of when the Government released the “retrain” posters around the arts…
Reena: Yeah I wrote about that in one of my essays because again the Government themselves highlight a rhetoric that certain courses are not profitable or worthwhile. We saw during the pandemic that everyone flocked to entertainment sources, as an ethnic minority it's interesting as I did Drama and English and I remember my mom saying “what’s drama going to do'' and my response to that was “you spend all your time watching Bollywood films Mom, all of her time is watching trained actors” and she didn't think that was worthwhile.
Heather: You made an interesting point about your mom, Is there more that can be done to tackle family pressure that students feel when it comes to choosing their courses and their next steps?
Reena: This is something every student recruitment and WP professionals will argue, it's so hard to get access to parents/guardians and all of us would love five to ten minutes to help explain to them about transferable skills, dispel myths around courses, but schools and colleges struggle to gain access let alone universities.
Heather: I personally remember my Mom, her teacher encouraged her to make a career out of teaching but unfortunately with her coming from a family of 8 and being the eldest sibling, it was expected she goes out and works straight away.
Reena: For ethnic minority students this is a real issue, you have this assumption on the right courses (Law, Medicine, Engineering and Business) from their parents as they only see this as having a vocational outcome. The Government encourages this rhetoric that there isn't a problem and uses these students as a statistic to back that up, which is not the full picture.
Heather: Do you have any heroes or someone who inspires you day to day?
Reena: Oh gosh. Oh. It's going to sound so silly because she's going to laugh if she reads it but one of my sector heroes is Rebecca Hollington who is Director of Brand and Development at University College Birmingham. Every time I am in a meeting with Bec and I am unsure what I want to say, Bec just says it and she has a very no-nonsense get the job done attitude. I aspire to be like her because she knows what she is doing and really cares about all the students we work with.
Heather: I was wondering if you ever had the chance to go to a University and Apprenticeship fair? Since that's what we do here at UK University Search. Would that have been useful for you?
Reena: Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to go to a fair and looking back at the ones I've done I often say to students, my role on the stand is to promote the university I work for but also to help a student make an informed decision. We all want to be able to give a student the right information, the more work we can do with students to prepare them for fairs, the better the experience will be as there are so many options available at events.
Heather: It is nice to go to an environment where you can make your own discoveries and you can have an adult, honest conversation with people about your future without them knowing how “good” a student you are. Did you get any nuggets or gifts of wisdom that you would pass on?
Reena: I think what I’ve learnt from Bec and other colleagues is that “no one has all the answers” people pretend they do know it but you not knowing the answer is okay, it doesn't mean you're not good at your job, it's just information you haven't learnt yet. You don't have to know everything about everything. 90% of people are faking it, you will sit in a meeting and everyone's head will nod along.
Heather: One of the best things a teacher ever told me is to be curious, there is nothing wrong with that and not knowing, sitting on the backfoot is where the problems are.
Reena: Yeah, ask questions. I hope that's helped and that I hope every
student who has ever met me at a fair knows that we care and that I am happy to
have a conversation with anyone if it leaves them walking away knowing what
their next step is. I want students to make an informed choice and that's why I
believe in HELOA.