It is an understood reality that students in higher education face a number of pressures; accommodation, money, workload. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Levels of mental illness, mental distress and low wellbeing among students in higher education in the UK are increasing. However, how are institutions of higher education responding to such levels of distress in their students?
The answer is disappointing. Research launched by the IPPR in 2017 highlighted many problematic findings. The first being that five times the number of UK first-year students disclosed a mental health condition than ten years previously. These figures were listed alongside other shocking findings such as a record number of students dying by suicide in 2015, and a record number of students who experienced mental health problems dropping out of university – demonstrating an increase of 210 percent compared to 2009/10. Moreover, 94% of Universities reported an increase in demand for counseling services.
These findings certainly illustrate the need for mental health support across Universities. However, little is still being done to support students by these institutions. In response to this research, Universities UK (the Umbrella Body for UK Universities) launched a framework for universities to help improve student mental health in 2017. The framework called on all UK Universities to develop a student mental health strategy, policy and action plan.
However, when challenged on progress on this area in January, the DfE argued that:
“We expect universities to support students. That is why we have issued guidance encouraging universities to focus on this important issue and we have worked closely with Universities UK on its ongoing programme designed to significantly improve the mental health support available to students.”
Last October, therefore DfE launched a consultation on the regulatory framework that the Office for Students uses to regulate English Higher Education. Whilst there is an extensive passage on the issue of freedom of speech, the document is still silent on the issue of mental health. Yet again, there appears to be a skewed cultural expectation that just because students are largely young, they don’t have ‘real’ problems or that they can just ‘get over it.’ Yet every student deserves services from their universities that support health, wellbeing, and learning. Real in-house support is desperately needed and should be provided by Universities, right?
Therefore, on 10th December 2017 the following Freedom of Information request was sent to 133 Universities across the UK with the statement:
‘I would like to request a copy of any University-wide Mental Health/Wellbeing Policy/Strategy/Plan, along with details of when each was agreed and at what body.‘
The results were disappointing. Of the 133 Universities polled, only 101 responded (75%) and of those that responded, just 23 (22%) supplied a strategy of the type described in the Universities UK Guidance (one that assesses the situation, plans appropriate actions, allocates resources etc.)
Moreover, of those that did not supply a strategy, just 23 (22%) indicated that one was in development. Overall, of all the responses, just 24 (24%) indicated that they were involving students or the students’ union in the development of their plans or strategies, and a similar number indicated a “cross-university” approach, where areas beyond “student services” departments, such as academics or estates services, were involved in improving mental health.
In conclusion, almost no universities identify particular groups of students at risk for specific actions and almost no universities have set out measurable performance indicators by which their strategies or policies may be judged. There is also almost no oversight of these issues by University Governing Bodies evident in the responses.
The responses from all Universities polled can be found here:
Commenting UEA Students’ Union Welfare Community and Diversity Officer India Edwards said:
“The Government has argued that Universities should have to achieve a minimum standard to operate- but whilst made up problems like campus freedom of speech appear in the proposed baseline, real issues like mental health are missing. So we are calling on the new Office for Students and new HE Minister Sam Gyimah to reverse this trend, ensuring that all Universities indicate that they are thinking strategically about prevention and treatment of student mental health and allocating the right resources to tackle the issue”
Consequently, NUS agrees that more needs to be done in regards to mental health provision in education.
Izzy Lenga, NUS Vice-President Welfare, responded by saying:
“Whilst a strategy is no proof of delivery, the results of this request are astonishing. Vice Chancellors must have been living under a rock not to have noticed the mental health epidemic sweeping UK campuses, yet large numbers appear to be dragging their feet. Prospective students and their parents should think twice about applying to a university that can’t prove that it has been thinking strategically about mental health- and should certainly worry if their Uni of choice can’t evidence talking to the NHS, involving their own students or training and supporting their academics on the issue.”
Therefore, we are calling for a new policy regarding mental health provision in education and recommend that the following steps are taken in order to avoid this continued misconduct.
- All providers should commit to implementing the recommendations in the UUK Step Change framework in discussion with students, students’ unions, and UUK should monitor uptake.
- When publishing its Regulatory Framework, the OfS should ensure that effective policies on student mental health and wellbeing are included within the baseline requirements for providers.
- OFS should conduct research into counselling waiting times, publishing results regularly to enable students to make informed decisions about providers.
- Indicative behaviours relating to this should include assessments of the mental health of the student body, publication of strategies, action plans and policies, and indicators of performance.
- Mental health metrics should be feature of access agreements, as well as retention, success and institutional performance strategies.
- Policies and strategies on mental health should be a key feature of the public information landscape.
- As part of the proposed Public Interest Governance Conditions, strategies and performance data on mental health should be approved and monitored by university governing bodies, who should work in this area as a strategic priority.
- The new HE capacity building organisation, Advance HE, should prioritise work in this area.