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Fostering a holistic approach to student engagement and success in higher education

27 Feb 2024 | Tom Lowe In this blog, Tom Lowe, Senior Lecturer in higher education at the University of Portsmouth, discusses the themes of his keynote speech at the forthcoming Advance HE Student Engagement Conference 2024.

Student enrolment into UK higher education continues to sustain high numbers, despite a growing cost of living and public debates about the value of a university education. Society’s promise to a prospective student on attending higher education can be summarised as university offering the ‘once in a lifetime experience’ and the ticket to a desired graduate outcome. Students give our institutions years of their lives and tens of thousands in tuition fees, and it is within this context that the modern university must adapt to continually meet expectations.  

This April, Advance HE draws together sector colleagues for the 4th Student Engagement Conference where colleagues and student leaders will share best practice and reflections on fostering meaningful student engagement in 2024. 

‘Stressed’ student experience 

Questions face our universities for student engagement - where we address the balance between in-person on-campus engagement and online flexible models. Our students are facing stark challenges in affording the costs of simply being a student in a cost of living crisis, ending the prior stereotype of a student life of ample free time, being replaced with a growing need to work.  

In a time of financially poor student experience, the ability to engage in sport, societies, student voice and even study is pressed, where students’ unions are also having to adapt to support their students and enrich their experience. This stressed student experience is put against often rigid curriculum models based on presentee-ism and timetables that ask students to be available any time 9-5 Monday-Friday, even for a one-hour class. It is in this context where we are attempting to rebuild belonging and community post Covid-19 and follow through on the promise of higher education of offering a ‘once in a lifetime experience’. 

Gen Z  

Our student body is also ever changing; the majority of our current students of traditional age are of Generation Z (born from 1996 to 2012). These students have been born into a technology rich society, where the internet and apps have annually offered new approaches to sharing and accessing knowledge.

As these learners approach our institutions, learning online is not new; in addition to technological innovations, almost all incoming learners have experience of online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Generation Z learners live in an information rich society, where attention spans are short, searches for information are quick, and the whole world’s knowledge is at their fingertips. It is within this same generation that poor mental health is on the increase, the issues of the world are apparent and inequalities based on demographics continue. 

Making it meaningful 

It is critical that we foster meaningful student engagement at the heart of our universities, yet since the Covid lockdowns, engagement approaches in wider society have substantially changed leading to lower student attendance in classes and lower footfall on campuses.  

As people, we now have a choice to shop online instead of traveling to shopping centres or the high street, stream movies instead of visiting the cinema, send voice notes instead of calling friends, respond to text messages with a simple emoji, and a growing ability to work from home. The way we engage with one another in society is changing, and when it comes to university, students no longer have to attend physically to access their learning like previous decades.  


It is within this context that we continue to focus on how we can sustain belonging-rich university communities despite the changing world of engagement, to support student success. Perspectives given by staff who often begin with “when I was at university” no longer meets the requirement. Only through engaging with student leaders and the wider student voice, can we truly understand current students’ experiences and engagements, and therefore, make informed plans for addressing the university of the future.  

My keynote at Advance HE’s Student Engagement Conference 2024 will address these themes and ask delegates to reflect on our current models of engagement. 


Tom Lowe is a Senior Lecturer in higher education at the University of Portsmouth, where his research includes student engagement in educational developments, embedding employability into the curriculum and supporting student belonging. Tom is also a Senior Fellow and Chair of the RAISE Network - an international network of over 1,000 members researching student engagement. Prior to Portsmouth, Tom was the Head of Student Engagement and Employability at the University of Winchester and Programme Leader of the MA Student Engagement in Higher Education. Tom has recently published a book titled "Advancing Student Engagement in Higher Education: Reflection, Critique and Challenge" as part of the SEDA Series with Routledge Education and has worked as an advisor across more than 40 universities and sector bodies internationally. 

Student Engagement Conference 2024: Fostering a holistic approach to success 

18 April, Leeds 

This conference will focus on good practice in engaging students, the student voice and student participation in the governance and decision-making processes within HE. Find out more and book your place 

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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