This guest blog was written by Alison Baverstock, Associate Professor at Kingston University and Director of The KU Big Read.

I’m feeling conflicted. Obviously this article is being published after internal consultation at Kingston University, but I am nevertheless aware that I’m in danger of revealing a significant Kingston USP, and one that correlates with a marked reduction in our institutional drop-out rate over the past two years; a big thing in today’s highly competitive higher education market. But the principle behind our initiative is relevant sector-wide and it’s too important to keep to ourselves.

What I have to tell you stems from an ambition to improve reading fluency – a skill no student should leave university without. Giving early prioritisation to reading fluency within higher education means students benefit more from all aspects of their course; curricular and co-curricular. Effective employability skills cannot be developed without an adequate level of supporting literacy and its prioritisation should be at the top of every institution’s list of measurable improvements.

Yet, literacy hardly features in debates over transforming or standardising continuous metrics frameworks, or papers and keynotes that are part of the conference circuit. Maybe because it’s such a basic skill and assumed to be in place before students arrive at our universities? Confidence may be misplaced. A 2016 OECD report stated that:

‘Around one in ten of all university students in England have numeracy or literacy levels below level 2. These figures indicate a major basic skills challenge among current students, which is often not resolved at the point of graduation. University programmes typically rest on the assumption that entrants have good core academic skills acquired at school.’ (Kuczera, 2016)

For a sector that places so much emphasis on evidence-based policy, information on the benefits of reading is not hard to find. Research has repeatedly confirmed that reading for pleasure correlates with a range of life-positives such as happiness, income, safety, empathy and greater articulateness. Reading supports the personal and professional development of the individual, encouraging students to gain skills that will last a lifetime: the ability to read a document and respond appropriately; to concentrate on the job in hand; to fit into a new environment, whether social or workplace; to learn from others and not assume all the information needed is either provided or innate – and how you get a message across can always be improved.

So what have we done?

At Kingston, within the context of our long-term commitment to inclusion, adding social value and transforming life chances, we’ve just entered our third year of prioritising reading as a key university-wide activity. The KU Big Read is a pre-arrival shared-reading scheme that means each new student gets sent a copy of an agreed paperback novel, with copies available to all staff and existing students too. Book discussions feature on social media pre-arrival, within welcome activities and scheduled author visits. We’ve captured feedback from both students and staff and have concluded:

  1. Students really value what they are sent. Pre-launch, we were worried whether students really would read the book and if shared-reading could be effectively incorporated within transition. But from the moment the book arrived there was comment online – prospective students talked of their delight at receiving a ‘present’ from ‘their university’ and an associated reduction in their pre-arrival nerves. (For those in the know, that fits Lippincott’s theory of the ‘transitional object’). Pleasingly, satisfaction rates were particularly high within communities traditionally at risk of finding transition more difficult, especially first-generation students living at home. The book became a badge of belonging for commuters.
  2. How the university impacts on the student experience is complicated. Monitoring of higher education tends to concentrate on the most obvious interactions: the quality of the lectures, the depth of feedback on assignments; the standard of accommodation. Evaluating shared-reading has revealed a much richer pattern and made us aware of how many people significantly influence our student experience, including the reception team, staff in the student café and the night-team in the library. Acknowledging our mutual dependency promotes both cross-organisational collaboration and wider institutional curiosity – commodities that can be in short supply within higher education.
  3. A university can still have strong appeal within its wider community. The recent decline of applications from returners and adult learners has been noted sector-wide. The KU Big Read has enabled us to connect locally with a variety of different audiences that seemingly want a relationship with us, just not the one we have offered in the past. We have worked with local libraries, two centres for the homeless, one for refugees and run associated book groups with a college for women without traditional qualifications. There’s much talk of universities connecting locally in the post-Brexit environment, and through adapting our communication style and offering volunteering opportunities for staff and placements for students, shared-reading has provided a useful starting point.
  4. Reading can connect all staff. Administrative and professional colleagues have been particularly engaged; our first title had to be reprinted twice in order to meet demand. HR have used our book as part of staff induction; Finance and Estates for departmental team-building. Shared-reading has drawn our community together: even those who disliked the book(s) chosen, or disapproved of the scheme, still discussed it – highlighting effective communication as a shared goal and giving everyone something in common at a time of organisational change.

So, in this increasingly uncertain and changeable world, perhaps an early ambition for the higher education sector should be to focus on securing a skill that is ostensibly ordinary, yet delivers such significant long-term utility. In doing so, we equip our students to benefit fully from their university experience and prepare them for interacting with each other and the wider world – all while building a community we can all be proud of.

For further information on The KU Big Read, please contact Alison at a.baverstock@kingston.ac.uk or via Twitter @alisonbav