What does the Journey to a Million mean for the overall student experience?

Professor Edward Peck CBE, Vice-Chancellor Nottingham Trent University and Department for Education Higher Education Student Support Champion

In June 2022, just after I was appointed the Higher Education Student Support Champion for England, I asked all colleges and universities, students’ unions, and sector agencies for their reflections on what was going well and where I should focus my work. The responses reminded me once again of the commitment and creativity that higher education providers bring to the task of supporting their students; in particular, the emphasis being given to enabling students to overcome the impact of Covid-19 on their education and their development.

However, there was a broad consensus around the challenges that students, staff and institutions face as demands for and upon higher education increase, in a context where the UK undergraduate fee looks set to remain where it has been since 2016 until at least the beginning of the 2025/26 academic year. Central to these concerns were three themes: the investment in and impact of interventions that create a coordinated and navigable system of student support; the increasing incidence of mental health problems experienced by young people and the roles of providers in addressing them; and the potential of student analytics to identify groups and individuals who may be showing signs of disengagement and distress.

Following a series of roundtables with a range of stakeholders, I am supporting colleges, universities, and sector agencies to move forward in these areas. Here, however, I want to step back and look at three broader aspects of the picture. Firstly, where should the responsibilities of universities and colleges begin and end in the lives of their students? Next, what, then, are the functions of support that students and society should expect from higher education providers? Finally, what do the answers to the first two questions mean for what they want from their employees? I will conclude that the time for a more fundamental service redesign may have arrived.

What are the responsibilities of providers to their students?

At one end of the spectrum is an argument that higher education providers should have a specific duty of care imposed upon them. At the other end is the contention that students are adults over the age of eighteen who are purchasing an educational service. Parents, politicians, press and students will position themselves at different places along this continuum. Expectations will vary enormously. The increasing numbers of younger UK students from socially deprived backgrounds may expect a level and style of pastoral support that the burgeoning cohorts of mature and international students may not.

This debate will get played out over several domains. Where do university interventions with students with serious mental illnesses stop and those of the NHS start? What alerts should accompany the experiences that students will be exposed to in their studies? What data should we collect that capture and predict current and potential disengagement and distress and how should respond to what we find? How will a student body increasing in size and diversity influence the approach of universities and colleges to student support as we approach a million applicants?

What are the functions of support that providers should offer to students?

There is a considerable array of activities being delivered by universities and colleges that go far beyond the teaching offered by academics in the seminar, studio or laboratory which were once almost the only show on campus. Study skills, peer support, personal coaching, employment sessions, resilience training, alumni mentoring — and many more initiatives — are offered to students. Some are targeted at and taken to individuals or groups with specific characteristics. Others are universal and based on students stepping forward to access them. It is predictable that as student analytics grow increasingly sophisticated the more tailored these interventions will have to become.

However, many of these activities lack a robust evidence-base. Often new ones are implemented alongside earlier ones that remain in play. The creation of a coherent system of support, one that is readily navigable by students and staff, may be a casualty of this constant, and in many ways laudable, innovation.

What do universities want from their staff?

Some academic colleagues welcome the chance to broaden their role with tutees into some of the areas highlighted above and there are training programmes that encourage them to do so. Others maintain these tasks are not in their job description and they lack the capacity or capability to perform them. Some universities are creating new forms of professional staff to undertake these roles, often based in central teams. This may give opportunities to make the support more effective in meeting the needs of the mature, ethnic minority, and international students who will go into higher education in greater numbers as we move towards the Million. However, all students may continue to view the academics who lead their studies as their primary source of support. Furthermore, investment in sufficient additional personnel to deliver, for example, personal coaching is expensive, whether it is targeted or universal. 


These challenges will only increase as demand for higher education grows. Increasing student numbers, needs, and technological advances suggest to me that the moment may have come for a more fundamental reconsideration of student support: what is the responsibility of higher education in respect of its students’ needs for support; what functions will it require to meet these needs; what sorts of staff with what kinds of skills will it employ to deliver them; and how will it integrate all these considerations into a systemic approach underpinned by student data? I am pursuing a project to explore these questions which I hope to complete this calendar year. This will give universities and colleges plenty of time to deliver a comprehensive and comprehensible pattern of student support for those million applicants projected for 2030.

Professor Edward Peck CBE

Vice-Chancellor and President, Nottingham Trent University

Professor Edward Peck joined Nottingham Trent University as Vice-Chancellor in August 2014. The university educates around 40,000 students from a wide range of backgrounds and employs circa 4,500 staff across five campuses. Previously, he worked at the University of Birmingham as Pro Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Social Sciences. His academic interests encompassed public policy and organisational leadership; he is a Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Sciences.
Professor Peck is Deputy Chair of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). He was a member of the UK Government's Post-18 Fees and Funding – aka Augar – Review Panel. In May 2022 he was appointed as the Department for Education’s initial Higher Education Student Support Champion. 

In July 2020 he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire and was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2021 New Year Honours List for Services to Higher Education.