Talking leadership: Edward Peck on young universities’ social missions

The Nottingham Trent vice-chancellor discusses using data to support students, avoiding strike action and why diversity conversations are too focused on Oxbridge

June 30, 2023

Nottingham Trent University is turning the PhD process on its head. The topic seeks the researcher, instead of the other way round, says Edward Peck, vice-chancellor and president of the post-92 institution.

The shift came about when he realised that Nottingham Trent had the biggest proportion of UK-domiciled ethnic-minority PhD students.

“It was the next logical step,” he says, adding that the university wanted to go “absolutely right into the communities”.

As part of the scheme, local communities define the problem that they want to have investigated by the PhD and the university then recruits 10 students from among those communities.

“Overall, we have a much more socially disadvantaged group of students than a place like [the University of] Birmingham,” he says. 

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Before Professor Peck became vice-chancellor of the young Nottingham Trent in 2014, he worked at older institutions, including Birmingham and King’s College London. He sees young universities as institutions that can “create their characteristics more” than universities with long histories of tradition.

“It’ll be a different sort of mission than one that Birmingham or indeed other universities with that heritage would have,” he says of the focus of newer institutions.

At NTU, the quest for a mission landed on a social one. “As a community of academics and professional services colleagues, what did we think we were trying to achieve? What bound us together beyond the fact that we all worked for the same institution? And we found that our task was to help students and communities transform their life chances,” Professor Peck says, in summary of the institution’s mantra. He repeats the idea throughout the conversation with Times Higher Education.

Professor Peck says that because it is younger universities that draw more students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and ethnic minorities, they must also “do more” to help students stay on and finish their degrees. These learners, who are more likely to leave university, tend to have lower prior retainment, were probably on free school meals and were also often accepted through clearing rather than the main cycle of university admissions.

When a university has fewer students from these backgrounds, there is less of a challenge in helping them transform their lives, Professor Peck says. At NTU, 34 per cent of students come from ethnic-minority backgrounds and 27 per cent from the poorest households in the UK.

“Often when people talk about diversity it’s about getting more young people from diverse backgrounds into Oxford and Cambridge,” he says. “Well, it’s not really. It’s about getting more people into [universities like] NTU, because we have the volumes; and getting them through and out into the jobs they want, to pursue their careers and change their lives.”

Varied career paths

It’s not only that the student body is more diverse in universities such as NTU; many academic staff come from non-academic backgrounds, too, says Professor Peck. Having scholars whose previous jobs were in the public sector or professional services means that they also bring in best practice from other organisations. Professor Peck thinks that this makes NTU “more like other organisations, perhaps, than a traditional university”.

This plays out in how the university has advanced its appraisal system. Peck claims that, with 98 per cent of staff getting annual appraisals, the university has “one of the most developed appraisal systems in the UK”.

“People who work at NTU have come in having worked in organisations where doing appraisals like that is just standard,” he says.

Academics at NTU can work either as teaching researchers, which is the traditional pathway, as teaching scholars, who develop pedagogy and curricula, or in teaching and practice, where they continue to work in their sectors of expertise. Having a well-developed appraisal system, with individual conversations between academics and their line managers, enables the university to have specific goals for these distinct pathways, he says. So while the appraisal system stems from the diversity of faculty, it also helps the university pursue diversity in terms of what it wants from its people.

“Constructive communication” is another element of organisational behaviour that was brought into NTU, initially during the pandemic. The university holds a monthly Q&A, where staff can pose questions to the vice-chancellor and other senior colleagues. It emerged from these conversations, which see participation from a quarter of the university, that staff were preoccupied with pay and work benefits. In response, Professor Peck says, the university negotiated its pay deal locally with its trade unions. In the current climate of UK-wide industrial action, he believes this is a key reason why NTU is the only member of Universities UK that has not faced a strike this academic year. 

Students as customers

Professor Peck himself has a background outside academia. He worked in NHS management for 10 years and pursued a PhD in his mid-30s while working part-time. In 1992, he joined the Centre for Mental Health Services Development, based at King’s College London, becoming director in 1994. In 2002, he moved to the University of Birmingham, where he led their health services management centre, before becoming head of the School of Public Policy and later head of the College of Social Sciences.

“I started at a slightly different place. I probably didn’t have some of the assumptions or traditions of my colleagues who came from more traditional routes,” he admits.

“I think I also probably came with a bit of a focus therefore on the end user – in our case, predominantly students, but sometimes research councils, sometimes local communities.”

With this lens, he sees universities in part as “customer service organisations” and finds that lots of parents, commentators, politicians and students look at them in the same way.

The implication of this, to Professor Peck, is that the end users or students “are more important than the institution”. If students aren’t supported effectively, they can decide to leave and go elsewhere, he says, impressing the importance of this customer-service mentality. 

Moving into academia from the NHS, Professor Peck says, he was “surprised” to find a paradox in universities. On the one hand, academics were radical thinkers in their own disciplines, but they were cautious when it came to change and reform within their institutions. This caution was particularly pronounced when it came to student support, he says.

Much of Professor Peck’s work in student support comes from making the most of student analytics. These include both engagement data, such as attendance at lectures and seminars, library usage and assignment submissions, and well-being data in areas including social deprivation, English fluency and requests for extenuating circumstances.

In 2022, Professor Peck was made the government’s first higher education student support champion, to help universities support students who are at risk of dropping out. By monitoring student engagement and well-being data, universities can spot the early warning signs of those who are struggling.

“The challenge we then face as universities is that, once we have that data, you can’t not know what you know. If you’ve got the data, you have to act upon it,” Professor Peck says.

Young universities have a higher share of students who are at risk of dropping out and therefore “have a more pressing – both moral and business – need” to help students stay the course, he believes.

“This might sound obvious, but the best indication a student is going to leave is that they have low engagement, based upon some very clear data points that we collect, and then we can intervene, support them and, hopefully in many cases, enable them to stay and complete,” he explains.

Professor Peck expects that younger universities also have more flexibility when it comes to staff understanding of what support looks like and what the role of an academic is.

But there is also a disproportionate pressure on young universities to improve their institutions and grow in repute, something that their elite counterparts are “almost immune” to.

“We have to keep on reinventing and re-impressing our brand in people’s minds much more regularly for people to hold us in the same esteem to [the University of] Birmingham,” Professor Peck says. “We don’t target awards, particularly, but we have to be really, really good at what we do around our teaching, our pedagogy and our student support.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

View the THE Young University Rankings 2023 results

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