Five aspirations for effective academic support systems

Drawing on insight from a new Wonkhe/Solutionpath project, Rachel Maxwell and Debbie McVitty explore how universities are approaching the wicked problem of reimagining academic support

Rachel Maxwell is Principal Advisor (Academic, Research and Consultancy) at Solutionpath

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

It’s been obvious for years that as student numbers increase the diversity and complexity of support needs of the student body increases alongside. Post the Covid-19 pandemic, with the cost of living crisis hitting more students’ ability to engage in their studies, and more intense pressure on the higher education sector to demonstrate that it has a grip on students’ wellbeing, universities are taking a long hard look at their academic support systems.

The limits of personal tutoring as a vehicle for academic support are clear: overloaded academics, students not always knowing who their tutor is or how to contact them, unclear roles and responsibilities, and over-dependence on students raising problems spontaneously whether or not they have the skills, language, or confidence to do so. Efforts to address one aspect of the problem reveal its wicked nature – more training for tutors simply increases workload; efforts to triage out to specialist services increase the likelihood that students fall through the gaps.

Yet the aspiration for students to have a human point of connection who is concerned with their progress and wellbeing rightly remains. It’s encounters with – mainly, but not exclusively – supportive academic staff, that make a difference when students are struggling. And universities rightly recognise that human connection in the academic community helps create the conditions for academic engagement, and can be highly rewarding and motivating for both students and staff.

Support towards agency

At base, every higher education institution is wrestling with the same set of challenges and aspirations. Getting support to the students who need it, at the point they need it, and navigating diversity of students and the scale of the need. Dealing with the reality that students’ personal lives constantly shape and interact with their academic study and that any “academic” support system is going to have to cope with the personal dimension to some extent.

But there’s also an opportunity to integrate students’ personal development journey with the support offer, creating a system that, as far as possible, finds the appropriate balance between supporting students who are having a tough time and enabling students to develop personal agency so that ultimately they are better prepared to face future challenges and struggles.

Achieving this means thinking in terms of whole systems – people, technology, policies and processes working together to produce the desired outcomes. Working together, Wonkhe and Solutionpath have invited seven higher education institutions to share insight with us on their work-in-progress developing student academic support: the University of the West of Scotland, the University of Exeter, Anglia Ruskin University, Middlesex University, the University of Derby, UWE Bristol, and the University of East London. We also invited students’ unions staff and officers with an interest in the subject to contact us to share what they are working on.

We’ve been privileged to get a glimpse into the thinking and plans of each institution’s projects. And despite the very different areas of focus and approach – against a backdrop of different HE systems, different missions and student demographics, different cultures, and different access to resources, there are some common themes that are guiding those institutions’ thinking that can tell us something about where the higher education sector as a whole is going.

A shared understanding of a student development trajectory

Academic support should reinforce the learning, teaching, and curriculum strategy – it might even be integrated into a curriculum framework. The value of articulating a student development trajectory is that it creates a guiding purpose for academic support that can offer a contextualising frame for many kinds of activity and intervention – which means the people involved in that intervention can make informed choices about how to direct their activity. A student development framework creates space for thinking about how to educate the “whole person” and articulation of what qualities and capabilities students will need that will help them put the knowledge and skills they have gained to use in their future lives.

Academic support can offer “curriculum-adjacent” spaces for exploring, planning and reflecting that enable students to make sense of their learning experiences and articulate what they have gained. In some institutions this is offered as a credit-bearing element of the curriculum; in others as timetabled personal tutor sessions; in others through more informal encounters supported by a well-designed information infrastructure. One such framework is offered by the Advance HE student needs framework – but some institutions may find that the process of creating their own is itself part of answering the challenge of finding a shared language and common purpose for academic support.

Scalability through differentiation

The reality for many institutions is that the personal tutor system is creaking because of rapid growth in student numbers and diversification of the student body – for example through growing international student numbers. In the course of our conversations we spoke to one students’ union staff member (from a different institution than those involved in our project) whose research indicated that there were subject areas where the majority of students had no idea who their tutor was or had received any contact from them. These subject areas coincided with the ones that had seen rapid student number growth in preceding years. Rather than clinging to the illusion that one policy can fit all, some universities are taking the opportunity to explore how disciplinary differences might create opportunities for variation in approaches to academic support under a consistent framework.

Indeed, students may need different kinds of support and development depending on their circumstances, and their stage of study. To some extent this is predictable and mappable, but there is also always the possibility of unexpected events or a period of challenge. Rather than expecting the personal tutor to be prepared to handle anything that students might bring to them, universities are exploring a range of different kinds of intervention, serving a range of different purposes. Coaching is increasingly popular; group sessions as well as individual sessions; proactive contact for less engaged students; and use of peers and specialist pastoral staff for different kinds of issues or purposes – all recognising that there is no single silver bullet for achieving all of the aims that might be incorporated in an academic support system.

Connecting things up around the student

Easy to say but hard to put into practice – so much of university life consists of well-thought through policies and platforms that don’t connect to each other so from the student perspective it all looks pretty disjointed and it’s easy to get lost. What we’ve noticed is both the hard graft of designing working groups, projects and workflows for cross-institutional coherence, and lots more attention given to students’ perspectives in thinking about how those efforts land.

That’s obviously about working with students’ unions and student representatives in the conventional way, but also about thinking quite carefully about how interventions look and feel from a student perspective, considering, for example, who is most likely to be a trusted message-carrier for students, what interpretations students might place on particular encounters, and how the experience of grappling with challenges might filter the experience of interacting with the institution. In that sense, while the job of connecting things up might look very practical and process-led, it can be grounded in a great deal of empathy and attention to students’ lived experiences.

That active empathy can extend across the whole academic management system. One students’ union president we spoke to is working with their institution on ensuring the academic regulations are accessible and written in plain English – in essence, making it much easier for students, especially those with less experience of education settings or for whom English is not their first language, to know, for example, how to avoid academic misconduct and be able to understand what to do if they are flagged as having broken the rules.

Absolute clarity about the role of academics…

…and other professional service and third space colleagues as well, of course, but it’s in the students’ relationship with academics that so many academic support systems seem to come adrift, either because academics are over-burdened with counselling students in crisis or because they are uncomfortable with the pastoral nature of the personal tutor role and so avoid or minimise it as much as possible.

The reality is that providing academic support to students is a specialist role, requiring a very particular set of skills, that some academic colleagues will be enriched and motivated by executing, while others will find it burdensome. As one student officer we spoke to observed, the increase in students with particular needs – for example, neurodivergence – means that personal tutors will need a wider range of tools to be able to engage effectively, initiate conversations, and spot possible concerns with different students.

Where possible, universities are looking for ways to accommodate these variations through developing and recognising the skills of academics who are brilliant coaches and tutors, and reducing or removing responsibility from those for whom academic support is not their main skill set. Accommodating disciplinary difference can help here too – it needn’t be about unequal distribution of labour but about academic support being provided in different ways depending on who is offering it and what is required.

Data driving proactive systems

All of the institutions we are working with are using or exploring the use of learning engagement data to inform their academic support interventions. The key here is being decisive about what data is relevant, keeping data presentation as simple and pared down as possible, and giving the right people access to the data they need to see to inform what they are doing. There’s a somewhat lazy assumption of a “data literacy” deficit among staff in universities, but the reality is that people make meaning from seeing data in context. Many universities struggle with data reliability, which undermines trust and confidence in data accuracy. Rather than taking a data-first approach, our sense is that it is much more impactful to think about how data can guide or inform the human interactions that make up the academic support system.

Universities that use engagement analytics typically do so because they want to inform a more proactive approach to student academic support – identifying the students whose engagement is below a certain threshold, or exhibiting unusual patterns, and reaching out to try to understand what’s driving that low engagement and find a way to support that student back on track. The goal is intervention as early as possible, before a situation spirals and the connection with the student is lost.

But there’s a scaled-up version of that approach which is about building learning and predictive elements across the system, enabling an institution to anticipate moments where additional resource might be needed and evaluate the impact of interventions to inform future development. Rather than solely identifying possible areas of risk, engagement analytics can form part of a wider dataset that provides information about individual students to those who need to see that, but also system-wide insight that can inform enhancement activity. For example, one colleague from one of the universities in our project pointed out that early intervention can also be a means of recognising students’ efforts and engagement as part of their developmental trajectory rather than assuming that only students with low engagement should be targeted.

It is noticeable that these various system features are mutually reinforcing. And while those working in universities where resources are scarce – really, most universities – may feel a level of scepticism that all these grandiose intentions can be realised in practice, our sense is that thinking at the system level is one of the ways that universities can ensure that scant resource is applied where it can have the greatest impact. As one university colleague put it, it’s in connecting things up that you can get something that is more effective in enabling student success than the sum of its parts.

None of it is straightforward – the universities we are talking to are very clear that while the theory of effective academic support is to some extent well socialised in the sector, it’s the implementation that is challenging. As our project progresses we’d like to explore some of those challenges in more depth. But we’re also really encouraged by the efforts the universities in our group have demonstrated to get a grip on these wicked problems and move thinking and practice on academic support forward.

This article is published in association with Solutionpath. Find out more about how the StREAM student engagement analytics platform can enable your university to identify students at risk of under-performing academically and support them to harness those student support functions that will be key to their individual success.

One response to “Five aspirations for effective academic support systems

  1. Wonderful article and full of obvious common sense (design your ‘system’ for the students you actually have and for the outcomes you actually want), it makes one wonder where the wickedness of this problem actually comes from.

    “…the universities we are talking to are very clear that while the theory of effective academic support is to some extent well socialised in the sector, it’s the implementation that is challenging.” A symptom of this challenge is, in practice, that many of those with the responsibility for affecting these changes have never worked in an environment that does common sense well and they revert to stretching old approaches to try and fix new problems. Working back to the root cause, we have proud people who are unable to admit they need to learn…

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