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Government appoints student support champion for England

Image: Chris Parr for Research Professional

Nottingham Trent vice-chancellor Edward Peck first to take on new role

The Department for Education has announced that Edward Peck, vice-chancellor at Nottingham Trent University, is to become England’s first student support champion.

Speaking at the 2022 Higher Education Policy Institute annual conference, further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan (pictured) said the champion would “provide sectoral leadership to share best practices and promote new initiatives” to ensure students are supported and remain engaged with their courses.

“Evidence shows that a student becoming disengaged with their course…is a critical warning sign for mental health issues, which, as we know, if left unchecked can lead to devastating consequences,” Donelan said.

Among other initiatives, the new champion is expected to encourage universities to adopt technology systems designed to spot early signs that students are struggling so they can get support sooner.

“Critical warning signs present an opportunity for prevention, hitting the problem at the source and helping to defend students against mental health issues before they strike,” Donelan said.

“Ensuring that we are focussed on combatting student disengagement will result in better attainment and of course better outcomes,” she added.

Peck said in a statement that he was “enthused and encouraged”at being asked to take on the role.

“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 said.

Free speech concerns

Elsewhere at the conference, Donelan was asked by David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, to provide evidence for a previous claim that universities are increasingly suppressing academic freedom and free speech.

Writing for the Conservative Home site in April, Donelan said there was “a cluster of institutions that are in the grip of a close-minded, intolerant ideology—and at the centre of this cluster lie our universities”.

“Once the guardians of free thought and expression, increasingly university is a place where you are told what to think rather than taught how to think,” Donelan wrote.

The minister was asked for the evidence behind the claim, with Green adding that it would be “devastating, if it were true”.

“I believe it is true, and so does the government,” Donelan said, pointing out that the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill is due to return to the commons on Monday.

“The evidence base that I personally have are the multiple students that have spoken to me over the last few years regarding free speech, and also academics,” she added, citing reports by the Policy Exchange think tank as further evidence.

“Yes we do have a fantastic reputation on academic freedom and free speech,” Donelan continued. “We want to protect that.”

According to the 2022 Student Academic Experience Survey of around 10,000 undergraduates, published today by AdvanceHE and Hepi, 65 per cent of students feel comfortable expressing their viewpoint on campus, even if their peers do not agree. Just 14 per cent said they did not feel comfortable doing so.