UK universities minister Michelle Donelan has appointed Edward Peck, vice-chancellor and president of Nottingham Trent University, to the newly created role of student support champion.
For a term of two years, Peck will advise universities on keeping students engaged with all aspects of student life including how to spot the early warning signs of students who may be struggling with their studies or mental health.
“The champion’s overarching goal will be to provide sectorial leadership, to share best practices and promote new initiatives to ensure students remain supported and engaged with their courses,” said Donelan.
“Because the evidence shows that a student becoming disengaged with their course is not just a problem in its own right in that students disengaging is a critical warning sign for mental health issues which, as we know, left unchecked, can lead to devastating consequences,” she continued.
Donelan made the announcement at the HEPI annual conference, which discussed the findings of a recent joint report by HEPI and Advance HE – the Student Academic Experience Survey 2022.
The report highlighted issues surrounding student wellbeing and found that mental health is the most common reason students give for considering dropping out, with 20% of students feeling lonely most of the time.
“I am enthused and encouraged that minister Donelan has asked me to champion ways in which higher education students can be supported to continue and complete their studies. She is right to highlight the challenges both providers and students face, including those around mental wellbeing, in order for us to seek improvement,” said Peck.
“There is a determination within higher education institutions to get this right 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,” he continued.
I am looking forward to working with the Minister, Students’ Unions, HE providers, sector bodies and businesses to ensure we provide the best support we can to a generation of students who have endured a dislocation to their lives and education that we have not seen for decades https://t.co/4cLgY1CWrQ
— Edward Peck (@ProfEdwardPeck) June 10, 2022
Donelan highlighted that this role is the “first time any government has created a position like this”.
“I think it sends a clear signal to both students and the sector that substance and meaning comes first for me,” she continued.
Donelan called Peck a “trailblazer” who has been “passionate and committed” to this agenda.
At the HEPI conference, staff, stakeholders and students discussed their concerns for the mental wellbeing of students.
Josephine Hansom, managing director of YouthSight, said “we are having a mental health crisis with young people”.
Melody Stephen, general secretary at the University of Manchester’s Student Union and fourth year law student, said “we need to stop divorcing mental health issues from the classroom”.
“We need to stop divorcing mental health issues from the classroom”
Donelan noted “year after year, hundreds of thousands of talented students brimming with potential attend our world-class universities, determined to make their mark on the world”.
“Unfortunately not every university experience is a positive one, and it’s all too easy for students to become overwhelmed,” she said.
Elsewhere, in Australia, a suicide prevention competency framework was announced to build upon the existing support system for students.
In February, an international survey of 10,000 students across nine education destinations, found that Covid-19 had a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of students with 66% of students feeling that their mental wellbeing had been negatively affected due to the pandemic, in what they felt could be a long-term impact.