Manchester Metropolitan University is the first to respond to the Student Futures Commission

Student Futures Commission chair Mary Curnock Cook pays tribute to a university that has risen to the challenge of securing student futures post-pandemic

Mary Curnock Cook OBE is chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission and a former chief executive of UCAS

At the end of March, I was invited to Manchester Metropolitan University for the internal launch of the sector’s first Student Futures Manifesto or – in their words – Student Futures Commitment.

Asking universities to create Student Futures Manifestos was among the key recommendations of the final report of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission, supported by Wonkhe, which had worked through most of 2021 to hear and understand students’ and the sector’s concerns about students’ futures after the pandemic.

In the report, we identified six key action themes which encapsulated the range of views we heard during the commission’s work. These were:

  1. Support for students before they reach university
  2. An induction into university life for each year of study
  3. Support for mental health and wellbeing
  4. A clear outline of the teaching students will receive and the necessary tools to access it
  5. Activities inside and outside the curriculum that build skills, networks, and communities
  6. A clear pathway towards graduate outcomes

Our report also highlighted the issues that we had encountered, ranging from students’ low sense of confidence about their relationships, their studies and careers, to the importance of working with students to co-create solutions and engender a sense of belonging and agency around successful student futures.

Although the pandemic crisis has started to feel like a distant nightmare, slipping from our consciousness, the consequences of those long dark months are still visible in our student populations, now exacerbated by the current demands of the cost of living crisis, global instability and a sense of uncertainty about how working lives will be shaped in the longer term. We need to support successful student futures now more than ever.


Work at Manchester Metropolitan University started last December under the leadership of Janet Lord, Director of Education for the Faculty of Health and Education. The university’s vision is to be a “transformational active learning community [that] is inclusive, supportive, and innovative” and its new education strategy sets out how the university plans to bring that vision to life.

Together with colleagues across the university, Janet brought together nearly a hundred students and SU leaders to co-create a wide-ranging commitment to student futures – one where students felt ownership and had agency.

The outcome was manifest that day of the launch at the end of March. A group of students kicked off the event with a joyous enactment of their own poetry and readings, complete with umbrellas and wellies so as not to forget Manchester’s reputation for more than a fair share of rain. These very personal stories reminded us all that starting at university is daunting – frightening even – and involves students knowingly putting themselves far outside of any home comfort zones.

One first year student summed it up:

You know when you watch those American movies of kids going off to university and they’re so excited and look like they’re so sure of themselves, so confident that they know what they’re doing? I wish that’s how I felt when I first moved away from home. Instead, I just felt like an intruder, like I didn’t belong. I wasn’t sure of the decision I made. Was this the right place for me? Everything surrounding was so big and I just felt like an ant scattering through an unknown path. Being in a big city, I thought that I’d be surrounded by new and exciting people. But in reality, Manchester felt like an empty playground. I felt so alone, so unsure of what I was doing. But somewhere between the then and now, things changed. I feel like I’ve found a place where I belong, I’ve found my people and I feel grounded.

Another remarked that she was “surrounded by a jungle of skyscrapers and a swarm of accents I don’t recognise. I’ve never felt more Scottish” – admitting that she is “sh*t-scared for what next year brings, but I know I’m in the right place.”

These sentiments and others like them were eventually workshopped through with students and the students’ union to produce the final Student Futures Commitments:

  • We are committed to providing you with excellent teaching, innovative learning and assessment opportunities, and a dedicated personal tutor.
  • We are committed to providing you with further study and career opportunities to get you ready for life after your degree.
  • We are committed to creating an inclusive environment, with lots of extra-curricular opportunities and the chance to meet new people, both as you settle into university and throughout your journey with us.
  • We are committed to ensuring you feel supported physically, emotionally and mentally with easily available support.
  • We are committed to ensuring that you feel supported to start university, not just when you join but every semester, and that you have access to inclusive, accessible and easily available support and resources.
  • We are committed to providing you with the opportunity to have your say to enhance your student experience and the experience of future students.

The commitments are set out in a video, illustrated by Manchester Metropolitan-specific student examples, that can be found here. The commitments are also showcased on the university’s student life pages on its website.

Community renewal

These commitments might feel quite familiar within the sector, and rightly so. But much of the power of the commitments is in the journey that crafted them and students’ sense of deep collaboration and empowerment from the process. That process built trust in the commitments and engendered a renewed sense of community between staff and students – a cultural change which will no doubt be felt by new generations of students joining the university later this year and afterwards.

The launch event in March was testament to that – students expressing themselves freely and powerfully through performance and poetry, collaboration on stage in full view as a panel of staff and students reflected on the work that got them there, and then a final, joyful rendition of ‘I can see clearly now the rain is gone’. The rain might not be gone for very long in Manchester, but at Manchester Metropolitan University, “it’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day.”

My heartfelt thanks to Janet Lord, and to Manchester Metropolitan University’s vice chancellor Malcolm Press, for inviting me to participate in this uplifting event and for taking up the challenge of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission.

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