Keeping it personal: supporting under-represented groups to succeed in HE

Our work with under-represented groups at the University of Hertfordshire is founded on a personalised, student-centred approach which recognises and responds to differential life experiences and challenges. We know that our student groups – including Care Leavers, Independent (Estranged) students, Young Adult Carers, and those from low-income families and low progression areas – face additional barriers at university and we are committed to tackling these. Our approach seeks to ensure each student feels known, listened to, and supported as an individual – and gets the information, advice, and guidance they need to succeed both in their journey at university and beyond. This includes dedicated named contacts; proactive and flexible one to one support; fast-track referrals to central finance and wellbeing teams, and a commitment to building our team and institutional knowledge of the circumstances and experiences of our students.

The Case: Why personalisation matters

We’re committed to working in this way as we have seen the impact it can have on our students. Some of the feedback we have received illustrates that: “They continued to reach out even when I wasn’t getting in contact” “Personal touches were phone calls, proving information tailored to my needs” “It allowed me to see that I wasn’t the only person experiencing something like this” “[your support] contributed to me being able to finish the course” When we take a personalised approach we build trust, so they both ask for and accept help. We can help them navigate complex university structures and processes, easing their pathway into support and preventing unnecessary delays. We don’t need to ask them to tell their story multiple times, avoiding causing additional stress or trauma. We also see the case made clearly in the literature. The “What Works?” change programme highlighted that one size really does not fit all when it comes to student support – instead, interventions for student success and retention need to be tailored to address issues both in specific disciplines, and in relation to the characteristics of the student cohort (Thomas et al, 2017). Good practice recommended by UCAS and the OfS for working with under-represented groups emphasises an individualised approach – with named contacts and personalised support plans being the hallmark of effective provision. Quality marks and charters such as the Stand-Alone Pledge (Estranged students) and NNECL Quality Mark (Care Leavers) do likewise.

The Challenge

Sustaining and developing a personalised approach is not without its challenges, especially in the current context. With the positive gains being made against access targets, and the welcomed increase of spotlighting support for under-represented groups in HE, the pressure on small teams within institutions tasked with supporting these groups rises. With the introduction of the new self-declared flags on UCAS, this will only continue to grow. We also aren’t short of student groups to support – the OfS groups of interest is a long list, and we all have wide ranging APP targets. The OfS’ proposed risk-based approach for the next APP may help us to focus, but we’re still likely to be facing difficult decisions about which groups we support, and how. How can we develop a fair offer for different student groups within the structures and resource we have available to us? How do we think about responsibilities and boundaries within the wider institution? Finally, more work is needed to understand and build the evidence base for this approach. The existing evidence on targeted retention and success interventions suggests a positive correlation between participation and retention or completion, but it cannot tell us for sure if these programmes are having the desired impact (TASO, 2022). As practitioners we see impact in the journeys and stories of the students we work with – but measuring and demonstrating the impact of one-to-one advice and support on cohort outcomes remains a challenge.

So what next?

Considering this, what next? There are three things I think those of us working in this space can do: Advocate for our student groups As widening participation practitioners, we play a key role in ensuring the voices of under-represented groups are heard. We need to keep advocating for their needs and circumstances, both to make the case for continued investment in personalised support, and to ensure that decision-making at all levels and across the student journey recognises and responds to the diversity of our student body. Develop knowledge & a whole-institution approach To create a truly whole-institution approach, understanding of our student groups can’t stay within our teams. Building the knowledge of our colleagues is vital so that they can recognise and respond to the needs of different groups and individuals – right across the student lifecycle. Build the evidence base We need to commit to evaluation – to looking at what works and demonstrating our impact. Not only is it required by and emphasised in the new regulatory approach, it’s also what will enable us to prioritise and refine our provision. Where empirical enquiry is challenging, let’s not forget that qualitative feedback and case study approaches can be powerful in making our case.

Keeping the conversation going

At Herts, we’ll continue advocating for our student groups and offering a personalised approach to ensure parity of experience right across their journey at university. We’d love to hear how others are doing this and how you’re tackling the challenges highlighted above. Get in touch and let’s keep this important conversation going:

Blog By Ellen Engstrom

References Thomas et al. (2017) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme. Available at: ; (Accessed 11 November 2022) TASO (2022) Programmes of student support (post entry). Available at: (Accessed 11 November 2022) Office for Students. (2022) Effective practice in access and participation. Available at: (Accessed 10 November 2022) UCAS. (2022) Supporting disadvantaged and under-represented groups. Available at: (Accessed 10 November 2022)
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