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Delivering a relaxed graduation experience to support inclusivity

04 Jan 2024 | Victoria Fanning Victoria Fanning, Academic Registrar at Nottingham Trent University, shares details of a recent relaxed graduation experience pilot designed to make graduation more accessible.

Why did we decide to deliver a relaxed graduation experience? 

Around 15% of our students choose not to register for graduation each year. This can be for a variety of reasons, but for some it is because the event doesn’t cater for their individual needs. For some students, particularly those with learning difficulties, autism, social anxiety or sensory processing difficulties, the traditional graduation experience can be overwhelming.   

Graduation should be a chance for all students to celebrate their achievements, so to make it accessible for all of our increasingly diverse community of students, we decided to look at alternative ways of delivering a graduation experience. We explored a number of options, such as whether to hold a quiet ceremony in our usual graduation venue, or whether to have a formal ceremony in another space. 

Through discussion with Student Support professionals, and a survey of students we decided to offer a relaxed graduation experience which we piloted in July 2023 (the day before our traditional ceremonies began), and which was open to all our graduates. 

Inclusive considerations 

We wanted to make sure that the experience catered for a wide range of potential needs and addressed those areas that might be the most overwhelming, such as the formal venue, fixed ceremony times, music, clapping, photography and walking across a stage in front of others.  

We opted for a smaller, less formal venue in one of our teaching buildings and provided a range of different spaces for graduates to enjoy on the day. These included a small presentation room, refreshment and photography areas and a chill-out zone. 

Graduates were given a choice of a more structured approach, with bookable time slots in the morning, or a less formal one with the option to attend in the afternoon at their own convenience. 

A lot of thought also went into the signage and décor. We selected scentless flower displays with muted colours, provided minimal signage, reduced flash photography and asked colleagues not to wear any striped or polka dot outfits. In our chill-out zone we provided soft seating, muted background music, light and sensory displays and selfie backdrops. 

We also wanted to make sure graduates didn’t miss out on celebrating with their cohort, therefore all who attended the relaxed experience were offered the option to join their cohort for post-ceremony refreshments on the day they would normally have attended graduation. 

What was the relaxed experience like for graduates on the day? 

We wanted to create a truly individual experience for every graduate to make sure their needs were catered for.  

On arrival, each graduate was welcomed and asked to choose from a range of options for the day. They could either do this through a conversation with a colleague or by completing a short form if they didn’t want to speak to a member of staff. Options included, whether to be presented with their certificate, to receive a handshake, to wear academic dress, and/or to have photography. This was well received by graduates on the day, with each selecting a slightly different experience based on the options available. For example, one graduate chose to be presented with a certificate but not to wear academic dress or have photography, whereas another decided to wear a gown and have official photographs but not to be formally presented. 

For graduates who opted to be presented with their certificate, a Presiding Officer (a member of the University Executive Team) was available and was briefed on their individual requests before the presentation took place. Graduates and guests were then invited to the presentation room to receive the certificate in the way they wanted. All presentations were individual. 

The remainder of the day was unstructured and graduates could move around the space and make use of the facilities available. The chill-out zone was particularly popular with graduates and guests, and this was the most utilised space on the day. 

How was the experience received by graduates? 

Feedback from graduates and guests on the day was very positive, with several indicating that they would not have attended graduation had this option not been available to them.  

A post-experience survey was issued to all who attended and 100% of respondents were highly satisfied with the event.  

The highlight was to just enjoy the graduation experience in a quiet environment with only my close family. I really appreciate being able to have a form of experience without worrying about being overwhelmed.”

NTU graduate

Lessons learned 

We learnt some valuable lessons from the pilot which we reflected on for our second relaxed experience in December 2023.  

Registrations were quite low for the pilot, and we will work closely with Student Support to ensure the experience is highlighted to those who may benefit from it most, and make sure the option is more clearly signposted at registration. 

There was also a quite high non-attendance rate on the day, particularly in the afternoon where the approach was less structured so we will put in place one-hour arrival slots in the afternoon. 

And finally, we need to recognise that students may choose to attend for a range of reasons. As an example, a graduate contacted us the day before the experience to ask if they could attend as they had just suffered a bereavement and did not feel able to attend the main ceremony. 

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Victoria Fanning is the Academic Registrar at Nottingham Trent University and jointly leads on the delivery of graduation. Victoria has a range of experience in curriculum development, pedagogic design, transnational education and place-based development for social mobility. 

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