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Seeing the wood through the trees: redesigning student support

04 Oct 2023 | Professor Edward Peck Higher Education Student Support Champion and Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, Professor Edward Peck, reflects on developing the Student Needs Framework which has been designed to help HEPs to take things ‘back to basics’ and rethink their approach to student support.

These are challenging times for universities, colleges and students. Pressure continues to build from many directions to increase student support, from more students presenting with complex mental health challenges through to a regulatory environment focused on continuation and completion metrics. Universities are generally good at responding but are faced with a plethora of guidance and exhortation from a wide range of agencies encouraging them to do more and to do it better. Certainly, some of the existing and emerging interventions are delivering tangible benefits to the student experience. However, this potentially piecemeal approach comes with a cost, both literally and metaphorically.  

The incremental, but sometimes substantial, additions higher education providers (HEPs) make to the student support landscape has resulted in a complicated system that may make it difficult for staff and students to navigate. I believe this is the time for us to step back and ask: what are the fundamental support needs of our students and are we meeting these in the most effective and efficient way?  

Over the past year, I have been working with UUK’s Student Policy Network to define these needs and to uncover the issues universities face in designing and delivering comprehensive, coherent and evidence-based systems of support. The Student Needs Framework has been developed to act as a template for what a redesign could look like and to assist HEPs in making decisions about where to start.  

Motives for change  

There is a continuing willingness in the sector to optimise student support. This is the context that makes us open to reviewing where we are, where we might go next and, crucially, how we might get there.   

Most interventions lack robust evidence, require investment in a time of financial constraint and create expectations of colleagues, in particular academics, who may not be well equipped to implement them.  

There is widespread recognition of the importance of student analytics: using data based on students’ interactions with HEPs to understand them better, and thus spot early signs of disengagement and distress. However, the right data are not always held in the right place, in the right combination or seen by the right people. Data about individual students can also only tell us so much; they reveal neither what the specific problem is nor how best to solve it in each unique circumstance. However, as these data become more available and external expectations of the effectiveness of our interventions grow, universities cannot not know what they know. They will be expected to deploy these data in a systematic manner, with clarity about who is expected to do what and when.   

The aim of this work has been to articulate the areas on which universities may choose to focus in their student support redesign programmes and to share the means by which they can move forward. 

Developing the Student Needs Framework 

The process of defining student needs started as a desk-based analysis of student surveys and various reports published over recent years in order to develop hypotheses about student needs. This engendered the first set of proposed students' needs under the general themes of ‘competence, confidence and resilience’ and ‘belonging and community’.  

During January and February 2023, I worked with UUK’s Student Policy Network, Advance HE and student representatives to test and further articulate the fundamental support students require to survive and thrive in higher education. In the proceeding months, I and colleagues from Advance HE engaged with nine HEPs, two students’ unions and student networks to discuss how this framing of student needs could be refined and deployed to enable design and delivery of student support services.  

The result is the Student Needs Framework.  It is deliberately broad brush; at this high level it is hoped that one size might fit all. It does not attempt to reflect the myriad ways students may manifest their personal needs but it is our hope they can all be encompassed within its 10 categories.  

The Framework may need some refinement by both providers and students in local contexts, perhaps in recognition of specific cohort characteristics, but I would counsel against spending too much time on this; the perfect may turn out to be the enemy of the good here. It is a rubric intended to start and structure a conversation.    

It is acknowledged also that student support services have to continue to function even whilst they are being rethought; this is an approach perhaps best described as strategic incrementalism.  

The Student Needs Framework can therefore be used as a tool to:  

  1. start and structure conversations within senior teams, and with practitioners and students, about what they are trying to achieve through the range of support they offer  

  1. map current interventions across their HEP 

  1. identify overlaps, gaps and inter-dependencies 

  1. develop approaches which align and streamline interventions across categories of needs 

  1. enable consideration of a system-wide implementation of the insights derived from student analytics 

  1. explore the ways in which emerging good practice and evidence can be introduced into an established institutional model. 

Student support redesign priorities  

Four key themes emerged as initial priorities for members of the UUK Student Policy Network in designing and delivering comprehensive, coherent and evidence-based systems of support. Each of these will be the subject of a roundtable in 2023 which I will run with the Student Policy Network with the support of Advance HE. 

  1. Knowing more about the technologies and tools available to ensure that the right analysis is done on the right data at the right time and shared with the right people who then do the right thing.  

  1. Developing models that support the personal development and pastoral support of individuals.  

  1. Enabling student-to-student support.  

  1. Creating compassionate communications and processes that recognise the effect of the framing and the conveying of policies and procedures on the general student population and seek to reduce anxiety wherever possible.  

I will share the outcomes from these roundtables via the Advance HE website and through Advance HE Connect later this year.  

I am grateful for the members of the UUK Student Policy Network for their contributions to this work. I encourage others to continue to learn from and share good practice on the Advance HE website as they use the Framework to support their experience and their evidence of their enhancements in student support.  


Edward Peck is the Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University and the first HE Student Support Champion. You can find out more about his work on the HE Student Support Champion website.   

Student Needs Framework

The Student Needs Framework provides a foundation for considering the redesign of student support services across higher education providers. The project also includes case studies to illustrate how the Framework is being used in practice. Advance HE members can download the Framework here.


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