Wales’ Children, Young People and Education Committee has been conducting a wide-ranging inquiry into student mental health support, and its final report is now out.
The question now will be how far the Welsh government can go, in terms of both funding and ambition, in responding to the committee’s substantial set of recommendations.
It’s been an exemplary inquiry, with student focus groups and university visits, as well as evidence from charities and campaign groups, NHS trusts, trade unions, university management, and a wide range of higher education sector bodies.
Minister for Education and Welsh Language Jeremy Miles’ appearance in November made clear that a “whole-system approach” to supporting learner mental health would be a priority for new Welsh higher education regulator the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER), and this is echoed in the overall thrust of the report.
Whole, not holes
The committee pushes for various commitments to joined up regulation of the sector, with the government enjoined to ensure that CTER will prioritise “the establishment of a whole system approach to mental health and wellbeing across the post 16 education sector” as well as the development of a “common framework for mental health support” across the higher education sector – and for students to be a key part of drawing this up.
Data will be a big part of this – there’s an ambitious recommendation for a sector-wide dataset on mental health issues, to include demographics, interventions, and evaluations. This comes with the advice that providers need to feel confident about the consequences of reporting data fully to the regulator:
They should be provided with assurances that if the data indicates particular issues that this will not have a negative impact on them, as long as they can demonstrate the actions they are taking to address any concerns.
This would build on existing data sources, though the committee questions the extent to which the current NSS question on mental health provides useful information beyond student awareness of services.
Given that the effectiveness of arrangements for supporting the welfare of students and staff will be a condition of registration for institutions in Wales, the issue of having clear and accurate data will inevitably take on particular importance, and the report also underlines the importance of sector collaboration to work out how best to sensitively incentivise students to disclose mental health conditions.
Whole, but also the parts
Proposing whole system approaches and common frameworks is likely uncontroversial (if hard to get right in practice) but – after repeated evidence sessions exploring the additional challenges faced by many distinct (and overlapping) groups in accessing mental health support – the committee has also drawn up recommendations for more specific work to address inequities.
So there is a welcome insistence that particular steps need to be taken to support international students with their mental health:
The Welsh Government, HEFCW, the incoming Commission [CTER], higher education providers and student representatives need to work together to set a base level of provision for international students, taking into account the specific needs of the different groups which make up the international student community.
The report references stories of financial hardship among international students as well as stigma around speaking up, and an inquiry session previously heard examples of challenges in connecting international students with NHS systems, which resulted in said systems not being fully aware of key previous medical history for those joining it at undergraduate or postgraduate level – issues which all stretch beyond the Welsh context.
A similar recommendation around baseline expectations for mental health is made for students on placements, and the committee notes the barriers facing a wide range of student groups, including care leavers, disabled students, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
The committee’s report also serves as an enormous bank of evidence and testimonials of the impact on student mental health of both Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis – the latter having been described by one vice chancellor giving evidence to the committee as equal to or more serious than the pandemic in its harms. The intersection between the two on a single generation of students certainly cannot be underestimated – and again, the committee makes clear that the impact has not been evenly distributed.
There are 33 recommendations in all, including mental health training for staff (as well as comments that the government and CTER need to ensure that staff working conditions do not undermine their ability to provide support), independent evaluation of how the pandemic affected transitions into higher education, the implementation of all the recommendations made by Mind Cymru on the progression from specialist child to adult health services, and further work on the evidence base for blended and virtual wellbeing support.
All – to varying degrees – will require some form of financial commitment, whether directly from the stretched public purse or from the outgoing and incoming regulators’ budgets and workforce models. Some recommendations specifically look at the student finance system, such as calls for potential further in-year funding for students at risk of dropping out, or a mooted requirement for the government to take into account the specific needs of all students when drawing up financial support measures – “including postgraduate students”, the committee notes, an important point given the unequal distribution of Wales’ (generous) increases to student maintenance for next year.
The Welsh government will now need to consider to what extent it can commit to acting on the committee’s proposals. To do so in full requires an investment of time and resources that is not to be underestimated – but also offers the opportunity to really set the standard for mental health provision for students. Other governments, regulators, and higher education systems should be taking note.