There’s only so much that universities can do

Jez Harvey has worked in the student movement and sector across Wales, Scotland and England for more than 15 years

As above, so below. A well used expression, but something I’ve been thinking about for some time.

Amongst the many changes that have happened within the sector in the nearly 20 years I’ve been part of it, one of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is just how much energy, resource and concern goes into student support.

Whether this is academic, pastoral, or financial, a huge amount of time and energy is being directed into simply ensuring students are able to get through a day, because of the enormity of the pressures students are now facing.

And as new SU officers start their year, a fresh batch of pressure will come on universities to do, spend, notice and achieve “more” over support for students.

Partly this is institutions playing “catch-up” on their responsibilities, but more so because the situation is only getting worse in wider society. Recent AdvanceHE/HEPI and NUS surveys demonstrate the reality of this.

Doing what we can

Mental health is a prime example, and something that I saw at NUS Wales. Obviously the provision of mental health support is a key part of how universities need to be supporting students.

As well as providing access to trained counsellors and advisors, institutions need to have properly reviewed their process and curricula to ensure that they are fit for purpose with the reality of students’ lives.

But there comes a point when institutions have done all they can – both in terms of what is practical for them to deliver as well as what is financially viable. At some point, the state must pay attention.

We developed a series of recommendations alongside Universities Wales and Colleges Wales on what gaps needed to be filled. Sadly, I can’t see the impact this has had on the Welsh Government’s draft mental health strategy, but I hope to be wrong.

Similarly in Scotland, I recently attended an event run by QAA on the new Scottish Tertiary Quality Enhancement Themes. In a room full of staff and student reps from across the tertiary sector, very quickly the conversation turned to how “mental health” could be a theme.

As much as I want to see the sector do as much as it can, I was deeply concerned at the idea an entire cycle of Thematic Enhancement activity being taken up by something that – at a national level – is the responsibility of the state and society.

Enhancement activity is vital, and something that has (in the way of these things and the sector) seemingly become an activity of branding and committee reports and activity.

Of course individual institutions and the sector more widely needs to be working together on how they can have the biggest impact on improving mental health, but the state must step in, and institutions need to be direct about that – both to the state and to themselves. That’s true in Scotland’s new Outcomes Framework too.

Meanwhile in England, as much of the sector gets Access and Participation plans submitted, the deep tensions between getting them in and having the resource to get them on are growing.

Competition for resources exacerbates the perception that universities admit students who are not fully prepared, leading to negative outcomes. And as the state fails to address external factors, universities bear the blame – or worse, students for making the “wrong choice”.

Therefore, as above, so below. Healthy organisations can only exist in a wider, healthy environment. The impact of austerity on public services and the growing fronts of culture wars within the UK was always going to infect the sector.

Despite the incredible hard work of organisations, institutions and individuals, we remain in the wider society that we do. As above, so below. Maybe it’s time we reflected more on that.

SUs latest Latest SUs blogs

Leave a Reply