The minister for higher and further education has announced the creation of a government-funded ‘Student Support Champion’, a new role to lead sector efforts to support and engage students.
Michelle Donelan announced the appointment of Prof Edward Peck, the vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, to the new role that would “embody [her] commitment to putting students first”.
The new two-year position will target dropout rates by promoting new initiatives to identify students struggling with their studies or mental health.
The minister made the announcement during an address to the annual Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) conference on 9 June. The Student Academic Experience Survey, undertaken by Hepi and Advance HE, found that poor mental health is the leading reason students quit HE.
“There is a determination within higher education institutions to get this right,” said Prof Peck, “and I will promote effective and evidence-based best practice across the sector, enabling universities to offer the widest possible range of ways to engage students.”
Last year, the government called on universities in England to adopt the recommendations of the University Mental Health Charter within five years.
Donelan said she refuted the characterisation of her policies on degree standards, minimum entry requirements and student number caps. She said she sought to build a meritocratic education system in which “anyone, regardless of their background, can gain a degree from a world class institution”.
If the UK is to drive social mobility and reduce skills gap, “quality is the pivotal factor”, said Donelan. She said she defined a ‘quality’ HE experience as one that gives students “the employability skills that will allow them to progress to a graduate job or further study”, not “about something narrowly defined by salary”.
Citing data compiled by the Office for Students, such as “at 25 providers, less than half of students who begin a degree can expect to finish that degree”, Donelan said it was not “anti-university to identify the pockets of poor quality and drive improvement”.
“As Michael Gove observed a decade ago, world-class public services are built upon a combination of autonomy and accountability,” she continued.
In my view, we spend too much time debating whether there should be more or fewer people going [to university]
– Michelle Donelan
In May, the government announced that it was handing the Open University £10m to create new education partnerships with FE colleges to offer technical education. This policy is to be followed by “a new Higher Technical Education Skills Injection Fund”, announced Donelan, offering FE and HE providers a share of £32 million to invest in technical studies. Ringfenced Strategic Priorities Grant funding would also seek to address funding gaps for level 4 and 5 provision, she said of her strategy.
Donelan said her approach put “students at the heart of our answer” to the “central question of what higher education is for”. Minimum entry requirements for student finance were not, she said, “banning anyone from going to university”, nor were student number caps on “low-quality” courses “about limiting the overall number of people who go to higher education”.
“In my view, we spend too much time debating whether there should be more or fewer people going [to university],” Donelan said. “When we should instead be focusing on ensuring every young person has a range of routes available to them – be that university, college or an apprenticeship – and all of those routes are good quality.”
This new approach would, she said, reverse old policies had “push[ed] some students into university before they are ready”.