What does the Journey to a Million mean for student support services?

Kieron Broadhead, Senior Executive Director, Students and Infrastructure, and Deputy Vice-President (Operations), University of Southampton

Universities in the UK have much to be proud of, and a clear focus on the experience of our students within their education but also in the co- and extracurricular space is certainly something that can be seen as core to our mission and something that we can celebrate. The evidence from UCAS demonstrates clearly that the demand for face-to-face, on campus and in-person teaching continues to grow and, whilst we learned lots during Covid about how to deliver high-quality blended experiences, it is against this backdrop that we must plan for new ways of engaging and supporting our students as they apply and are admitted to our campuses in greater numbers.

A scan of the many excellent education and student experience strategies that can be found across our diverse sector demonstrates a consistency in the areas of focus for universities. There are a number of key themes that I consistently find myself discussing internally at the University of Southampton, and with peers across the sector, and these centre around delivering a great experience that: meets student’s expectations; delivers against the ‘value for money’ test; develops and drives a sense of belonging and pride; keeps safety, security and wellbeing central to our mission; and enables those students to have a successful future. If individual institutions, and the sector, are to effectively deal with significant growth in student numbers whilst preserving the levels of satisfaction that we enjoy, then an integrated response, working closely with all of our partners to address these key themes will be vital.

A plan for student housing

There are some areas that are deserving of specific focus. Firstly, creating the infrastructure that is required to deliver a great student experience now will be critical to success. The volume of student accommodation required to cater for this expanding market is vast and there is already pressure in many towns and cities. Developing a significant volume of new purpose-built accommodation or growing the size of any private rental market will take many years. Working with local councils and partners now is a necessary foundational step in preparing for a future we can see coming towards us. In our own context this has meant working closely with our local ward counsellors, our Students’ Union and building relationships with local Private Based Student Accommodation and the city councils to make the case for increasing capacity, articulating all of the value that this growth will bring to our communities. 

Co-ordinating student support services

As student services professionals and personal tutors know all too well, the number of students entering higher education with additional needs and complex requirements for support has been growing. Broadly speaking, the sector has good systems in place for supporting our students with the widest range of needs and strong relationships in place. However, an expansion in student numbers will require even more coordinated multi-agency support to keep our students safe and well, and we will need to develop an even closer relationship with our NHS partners and associated support services. Developing proactive services that can work in a scalable manner to support students and identify those who are struggling has been a focus of our mental health and resilience strategies, focussing effort on training our staff, and developing sports and wellbeing strategies that build wellness, healthy lifestyles, and peer support networks. 

Fostering connection

Developing a sense of belonging in diverse student cohorts is a major focus of the work of our student support and engagement professionals. An increase in student numbers will require us to work through how to ensure students have access to all the extra and co-curricular opportunities that build communities, be that working closely with our Students’ Unions and Guilds to prepare their services or providing additional opportunities for students to come together.

Stepping up post-graduation

Supporting a higher number of students doesn’t stop at graduation of course, our graduates need supporting too. Working with students to ensure that they are able to plan for and articulate their future careers in an increasingly competitive graduate labour market will require expansion of the services that we offer and the partnerships with employers and sponsors. At the University of Southampton, we have begun using Careers Registration data to monitor and track the career readiness of our students. This enables us to target interventions in a personal and timely manner, focussing our effort where we can have the most impact. This data point also helps as we develop services to meet the career aspirations of the Generation Z cohort, those who aspire to have multiple careers in their lifetime and also those who join universities with ideas for business creation.

Underpinning all of these activities are the hidden iceberg of a university’s infrastructure; the things that enable a university to meet both the regulatory requirements expected of it and the systems and processes that enable students to apply, to receive marks, to progress and to graduate. An increasing number of students will put additional pressure on everything from registry functions to timetabling teams, from visas and compliance teams to student hubs, from our library teams to our student life functions. There are certainly economies of scale that can be found through the development of slicker and more intuitive processes, but it will be critical for us all to identify places where the human touch continues to add value and plays into perceptions of value for money.

By considering the student journey in a holistic manner we can ensure that we’re preparing ourselves in a coordinated way for this new future. By mapping the student lifecycle collaboratively within our institutions, bringing together colleagues and students from all parts of the organisation, we can not only plan for the future, but we can develop the teams in our universities to understand the student experience better and their role in it.

To conclude, the increase in students entering higher education is both exciting and challenging. It will have a direct effect on the infrastructure that universities and cities require to support students, and will require a significant scaling up of the operations that operate to ensure students don’t just survive, they thrive. One of the responsibilities of those people in roles like mine will be to ensure that this scaling does not work in opposition to our mission to personalise student experiences and build deep communities. And we need to get planning for this now, opening the conversation with our universities, our students and our communities about what we need to have in place to ensure the very best experiences for all who choose to come to us.


Kieron Broadhead

Senior Executive Director, Students and Infrastructure, and Deputy Vice-President (Operations), University of Southampton

Kieron Broadhead is Senior Executive Director for Students & Infrastructure and Deputy Vice President Operations at the University of Southampton. In this role he has responsibility for the leadership of all the non-academic student facing operations at the University. Kieron has worked in a number of different types of HEI and has developed a keen interest and commitment to ensuring that student facing activities are strategically coherent and focussed on the many different groups that they support.