The Interview UK
University of Essex
Director of Student Life and Deputy Academic Registrar

Rachel Lucas

Creating student support services that not only put students first, but also take into account the diversity of a student cohort, is rising to the top of EDI agendas. As Director of Student Life and Deputy Academic Registrar at the University of Essex, Rachel Lucas has been reshaping and refocusing student support services with these needs in mind.

Kira, GoodCourse’s Community Engagement Lead, sat down with Rachel to learn more about her time in Higher Education, the challenges of the last few years, and the broadening of initiatives to make paths to success the most inclusive they can be.

Rachel's journey

Kira: Could you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming Director of Student Life?

My parents were both teachers. My mum worked with students from challenging backgrounds – those that had been excluded from school and later, with students that had special educational needs. I met a lot of them, and they were full of ideas and enthusiasm – it’s where I started to see the disconnect between potential and what society believes these demographics are capable of. I became aware of how transformational education can be, but also how inequitable access to it could be.

When I left university, I fell into quality assurance and worked in that area for 11 years. When I joined Essex, it was as Head of Quality Assurance and Enhancement. I also worked on institutional audits with the QAA.

Then, an opportunity to take a sideways move opened up. I became a faculty manager, responsible for supporting the strategy and finances of the humanities department here at Essex.

A few years ago, I moved back into central administration as Director of Student Life. What links all of those roles is my passion for student support services and access to high-quality education, and helping students get the best out of the opportunities available to them.

Collecting data is a good way to see where you have gaps. If certain groups aren’t engaged at all, we know about it now and can do something about it.
Kira: How have you brought this experience to your current role?

I’m responsible for many services that can make a real difference to whether a student succeeds or not. I share responsibility for the access and participation plan and the services I look after include academic skills development, employability and careers, student wellbeing, and induction. All of these services play an important role in whether a student thrives at university or not and whether they are equipped to achieve their aspirations when they leave. I get to shape directly the development of these services and ensure they’re student-centred.

Kira: What initiatives are you most proud of?

Reshaping the inclusivity and wellbeing service. Looking at it afresh in light of the UUK Step Change framework, and more recently the Mental Health Charter. Central to this was moving the service towards a preventative and proactive ethos, rather than waiting until students are at the more extreme point of need.

It seems obvious, but ensuring everything we do in the service is about student needs, as opposed to internal processes. Are policies clear and simple, are they putting the student first, as opposed to what’s easiest for administration and the academic cycle?

Another initiative I am very proud of is something we call Chart My Path.  An issue I was worried about was that it can be quite daunting arriving at university. I liken it to arriving at a bookshop and it just being an A-Z of books and there being no tools to help you. The likelihood is, you’ll leave the bookshop with nothing, or something you don’t really want.

Chart My Path is a key part of student support services here – it’s a navigational tool that students log into. It not only helps them find extracurricular things they are interested in but also nudges them towards activities they might not have thought of.  It has self-reflective tools too, to support personal development.  It’s a work in progress, but essentially we want students to find opportunities at a timely moment, rather than discover too late that they’ve missed a lot of things that would have enriched their student experience.

Finally, Impact Assessment is important for all of the areas I oversee. For everything we deliver we try to think about our goals and how we’ll know whether we’ve achieved them. In a resource-limited context, you need to know your work is maximising impact and delivering value for money for students.

Kira: I wish I had had Chart My Path! What do you think has been the impact of the initiatives you’ve implemented?

I think Covid got in the way, it had such an impact on mental health. When we went into lockdown, we needed to ensure students could still access counselling and wellbeing services – we saw a massive increase in people wanting to access our services.

In this environment the ability to judge the impact of initiatives like Chart My Path is quite challenging – it’s hard to demonstrate cause and effect when so much has changed. But the lockdown and pandemic was completely unprecedented – the fact we still managed to support students was amazing. I’m incredibly proud of my colleagues’ achievements and what our students have achieved despite all the challenges they’ve faced.

Chart My Path has improved uptake of activities, so hopefully, this will lead to better outcomes for students when they move on from us.

Kira: During 2020 there were more conversations related to difference and diversity - inclusivity became more of a strategy for all universities. What does this look like for Essex's student support services?

Inclusion is threaded through everything we do.  It’s part of our reshaped student support services. One of the ways we’ve responded in Student Life is that we’ve refocused how our Residents Life Network works, we focus on specific actions around engaging groups that aren’t as engaged with our initiatives. Collecting data is a good way to see where you have gaps. If certain groups aren’t engaged at all, we know about it now and can do something about it.  

Given the proportion of young people that experience mental health issues, logic tells us that where we see groups not engaging it’s not that they don’t need us, people aren’t using our services because of barriers. We have staff with specific responsibilities to reach out to students we have lower engagement from.  For example, there’s now a support network for trans and non-binary students. We need to work out the reasons for non-access for different students and take action.

3 Quickfire Questions

Kira: What’s your most important advice for someone starting their career now?

Find an organisation that aligns with your values. If you’re at odds with what the senior management of the university wants, it’s miserable. So find an organisation that you feel proud to work for.

Kira: Who do you admire the most in the HE space?

Dr Dominique Thompson, she’s incredibly inspiring and when we launched our reshaped Student Wellbeing and Inclusivity Service she was a powerful speaker at our first wellbeing and inclusivity staff development event.

Kira: What’s the most important book you’ve read?

I’m an English Literature graduate so this is incredibly hard – as a student though, Hamlet made a real impression. My favourite quote from the play is ‘there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so’ –  attitude is everything.

From a work perspective – I trained as a workplace coach to help me better support my team and for anyone interested in pursuing this, I’d really recommend Challenging Coaching by Blakey and Day.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kira Matthews
Community Engagement Lead
Kira leads our community outreach team working hand-in-hand with changemakers on both sides of the pond. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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