Perspectives on student success in Higher Education

A blog by Mark van der Enden, Javayria Masood, Sumaiyah Burnett-Forbes, Brittany Button, Eleanor Shephard and Pranay Skakya.


Student Success in Higher Education is a “hot” topic at the moment and rightly so. The Changing Higher Education landscape in the UK, including the increase in student fees and the widening participation agenda, have necessitated increased scrutiny of student outcomes with a focus on retention and progression.

The term “student success” has in the last few years come to characterise not only the increased attention on students receiving favourable degree outcomes, but also those initiatives (and teams) seeking to improve, in various ways, student attainment. 

Defining success

The increased emphasis on student success in Higher Education in the UK necessitates a discussion of what it is we actually mean when talking about student success. How do we define success and the lack thereof? Additionally, do students and staff (the Institution) have similar ideas about what constitutes success in Higher Education?

Student Success is often connected with data around student retention and progression. In the words of Sa (2020) eg, “the elements most commonly incorporated in the definition of the concept of success are quantifiable indicators of student attainment….” Sa mentions in this context enrolment rates, grades and progression data. The focus is on data showing how many students enrol at an Institution and successfully progress through their degrees (year on year). 

The realisation, however, that Student Success is more than progression data has always been there. Roberts (2018), highlights that “whilst student success is often defined as a student succeeding to the point of being able to graduate, retention is not always the only measure of a student’s success.” Advanced HE neatly articulates this when stating that “retention’ is about students remaining in one HE institution and completing a programme of study. ‘Success’ recognises that students benefit from HE study in a wide range of ways, including personal development and progression into work and career or further learning.” The recently introduced OFS regulatory conditions emphasize this expanded view of Student Success in Higher Education by the inclusion of the requirement for “60 per cent of students to go on to further study, professional work, or other positive outcomes, within 15 months of graduating.”

Student Success in Higher Education, therefore, can and must be defined more holistically. Success is about more than progressing through and obtaining a degree. It’s also about getting a good job after university, progressing into further study opportunities and personal development. 

When asked about what success at University means to them, many students we speak to in our role as Student Success advisors at the University of Surrey tend to agree that it is about more than marks and performing well academically. The following quotes illustrate this.

What success at University means to me:

  • “Having a good balance of both academic, social & personal life. Where I meet my own personal goals beyond academics, to form good connections, to have good memories, to make the most of every opportunity & service at university. To engage with everything as much as they can, to make the most of this transitory period. Success in personal life and career.”
  • “Setting myself up for long-term success, being able to work consistently throughout the academic year to achieve the grades I know I’m capable of achieving. Looking after my mental health and helping to prevent burnout are my biggest priorities.”
  • “Success at university means enjoying my chosen course and looking forward to learning about different topics within that. It means developing my understanding of the subject over the course of the year and doing well in my assignments and exams. But it also means making good connections with people on the course and tutors, as well making meaningful friendships which support my wellbeing both in and out of studying. The best outcome from university would be to leave with a sense of fulfilment and feel that I have learnt and grown throughout the course, and that this has supported my social wellbeing.”

These quotations illustrate that for some students success is about more than just doing well academically. It's also about personal development, connecting with others and ensuring one’s general wellbeing. When directly asked, the students we spoke to indicated that although academic performance is naturally very important, often in connection with being able to transition into a desired career after the degree, there is the realisation that having a successful University experience involves more and is multifaceted. This is particularly so when we consider some of the barriers to success. 

Barriers to success

As we know, barriers to student success in Higher Education are varied. Within the student experience department at the University of Surrey we are actively involved in working towards negating these barriers and have built up considerable expertise in this area. Next to the recently introduced Student Success Team, our Widening Participation and Outreach team, closely collaborating with the (in-house) Higher Education Outreach Network (HEON) and our Money Support team are examples of teams that actively support (prospective) students, through financial support and various initiatives targeted at reducing the barriers students face whilst at university or prior to arriving.

There is a lot of recent research on the nature of the barriers students of WP backgrounds are facing in Higher Education (eg as articulated in the evaluation report of the OFS Addressing Barriers to Student Success Programme). From personal experience we know that at Surrey, such barriers can relate to students not feeling included/a sense of belonging to the department/Institution; considerations around equity and accessibility; financial pressures and appropriate academic support.

When we asked the students consulted in preparation of this blog about their experience of barriers to them having a successful University experience, the following observations were made:

  • “Personal barriers, self-organisation, prioritising time – especially in your second and third years. You need to have dedication, discipline and consistency. WP barriers that aren’t self-inflicted, more of a systemic issue that needs to be resolved internally within institutions. Traditionally there have been barriers in University due to discrimination, creates divides unintentionally. The ease for white people, have accessibility. Now there are more incentives/inclusionary movements to include marginalised people.”
  • “Feeling isolated and having issues outside of lectures which hinder the ability to give your full attention to studying. Not having the correct support or knowing where different areas/sources of information are on campus and online.”
  • “Being too busy or overwhelmed to have a healthy work/life balance. Particularly in my first year of university, I overcommitted myself and then felt unable to back out.”

These responses highlight both systemic barriers to student success as well as barriers that are reflective of the transition into Higher Education and coming to grips with what it means to be a learner in a Higher Education environment (in the widest sense of the word and including living independently, requirement to manage own time, etc). Within Student Success at Surrey, a lot of the pastoral support we provide involves helping students of all backgrounds to navigate their university experience, which includes helping students to access appropriate support and information, manage their time effectively and more generally provide a safe space for students to share their worries and concerns. 

Identifying success 

An important question, however, is how do we go about identifying student success in Higher Education or conversely lack of success or non-engagement. This is a vital question as it pertains to how institutions are able to identify those students most in need of support but also how students get in touch with the University (eg, through their personal tutor, module leader or professional services) when presenting with a particular issue, challenge or feeding back about their experience. 

At Surrey, the recent introduction of Learner Analytics has revolutionised our approach to the above, giving the Institution the ability to continuously monitor student engagement and giving our students the opportunity to review how they are engaging with their own learning. 

Our new Learner Analytics Platform, called MySurrey Engagement. Provides each student with an engagement score. This engagement score is calculated, amongst other things, by means of tracking how many times a student logs-in to our VLE, consults and downloads online study resources such as e-text books or watches captured content. The resultant engagement score is visible to the student, their personal tutor, the senior personal tutor on the student’s programme and the Student Success Team. In this way it is possible not only for the student to reflect on their own learning journey but also for the Institution (through their personal tutor, senior personal and Student Success team) to proactively support students at risk of disengaging from their degree. 

Learner Analytics has given us the ability to track and measure what we think are fundamentals in a successful student experience/journey through HE. Though we of course recognise that student engagement and a successful University experience is about more than how many times a student logs-in or watches content online, the data recorded through the platform provides important and potentially vital insights into how our students are doing and which of them might be in need of/could benefit from additional support. More traditional forms of student support often rely on the student self-presenting to a particular service, such as academic skills or Student Success. We know that only a minority of students do so or engage with support services after a substantial period of time has passed.

Therefore, a significant number of students who might be struggling to engage with their studies, for a multitude of different reasons, may potentially go without timely support. Learner analytics has the potential to change this by enabling Institutions to articulate/envision gradations of student engagement with a degree programme and act accordingly by reaching out proactively to those students who are perceived to be struggling to engage with an offer of support. 


Learner analytics can play a vital role in supporting the success of our students, not only by being able to identify students who are not engaging with their studies as we would expect but also by offering the opportunity to reach out to those students proactively with an offer of support. 
As such, at Surrey our Learner Analytics has turbocharged the way in which we are able to support our students, operating in close collaboration with existing support services. 

An important strength of the approach taken at Surrey is that our Learner Analytics platform (MySurrey Engagement) sits within Student Success. This team helps students to navigate their university experience, working through complex challenges, supports specific WP cohorts and provides 121 pastoral support to all students. By having the portfolio of learner analytics sit within Student Success the Institution is able to benefit from having an integrated and holistic approach to supporting our students, in which one team has oversight of both student data around engagement and coordinating the follow-up support offer (in close collaboration with personal tutors, senior personal tutors and professional services teams). 

This brings us back to our earlier discussion on what student success actually means. We have illustrated that success in Higher Education should be approached holistically by encompassing not only a student’s academic performance but their experience at University more widely. Doing well academically, feeling part of a community (of practice), and feeling supported and heard are all encapsulated in this. Through our pastoral support work with students over the last couple of years, the Student Success team at Surrey has built up considerable expertise and insights into the challenges some of our students are facing whilst at University and the reasons why they might be disengaging from their studies. Such insights and expertise are vital in making the most of Learner Analytics platforms and enable us to offer targeted holistic support, drawing on our analysis of learner analytics data and understanding of student pastoral support needs.


Roberts, J., (2018) Professional staff contributions to student retention and
success in higher education, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 40:2, 140-153,
DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2018.1428409

Sá, J.M., (2020) ‘The secret to success’. Becoming a successful student
in a fast-changing higher education environment, European Journal of Higher Education, 10:4,
420-435, DOI: 10.1080/21568235.2020.1777445

Warwick Economics and Development (2020) Evaluation of the OfS Addressing Barriers to Student Success Programme, Summative Evaluation FINAL REPORT, Report to the Office for Students,