Universities must be honest with students whose needs they cannot meet

Should you arrive at university with a pre-existing mental health condition, you will disproportionately be more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Without proper care and support, it can be incredibly difficult to find ways through challenging situations.

The Unite Students 2016 Insight Report finds that students with a mental health condition are more likely to cope poorly at university. 21% of students with a mental health condition said that they have “strongly considered” dropping out of university compared to just 8% of students without a mental health condition. The report highlights that student integration is important for enhancing the overall student experience and deterring the desire to withdraw from university studies. Yet students with a mental health condition are twice as likely to not feel integrated in their student house or flat, compared to students without a mental health condition.

Writing this blog I paused to imagine all the student support activity across the UK: medical evidence; multi-department and agency meetings; individualised support packages; external guidance; curriculum adaptations and assessment method reviews. All are reasonable adjustments required by the Equality Act, and the sector has made a great deal of progress in extending the support it can offer its students. However, it is possible that despite these now well-established strategies, many students with a mental health condition are still more likely to cope poorly.

I have been privileged to spend much of my career working with university students who experience barriers to learning as well as specific and general difficulties in their day to day life. These might include barriers which negate or make difficult access to the curriculum and content of courses; difficulties, be they minor or major, which occur in the process of living as independent young people; issues which can and do arise when living within the local (and not always familiar) local community; addictions and, in substantially and increasing complication and number, serious mental health conditions. I have come to learn that for some students, despite the full use of all available support, their student experience will not be equitable with their peers.

In the nineties I worked in a further education institution, where I remember that the mother of a student asked for my ‘off record’ honest evaluation (the dreaded question): ‘Is this college the best place for my son?’ My answer was ‘no’. In many ways the mother’s question, and certainly my answer, was an easier one than it might be now. Today things are much more complex, with more considerations, more thoughts and opinions to balance, more frameworks in which to operate, more checks and balances. I cannot imagine answering the question as I did fifteen years ago ever again, for sound progressive reasons beyond mere business imperatives. However, Unite’s report caused me to reflect again on this very incident.

After the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (and before the Equality Act 2010), I was aware as a practitioner that students with mental health conditions were withdrawing from their courses to transfer to the Open University or to universities closer to their parental homes. It was rarely academic demands that drove these decisions but nearly always their wider student experience. For many students I am sure this ultimately led to success, but it wasn’t their original plan or aspiration. All things being equal, their first choice was to live away from home, to cope with the challenges, and to complete their course.

A colleague has recently returned from the USA where she visited a number of universities, and I was intrigued to hear her example of a specialist living facility for students with drug and alcohol dependency issues. This accommodation (although it is so much more) includes the use of highly specialised medical and academic support structures so that at the beginning and end of each day each student is individually provided with a learning foundation.

This seems to be a true validation of inclusive practice in action. For some students, albeit a small number, it is possible that we cannot yet do enough to meet their needs, because the complexity of those requirements need meaningful and established inclusive practices that promote and support integration, across the entirety of a complex organisation. If this is the case, universities need to be honest with both themselves and with those students about these challenges.

‘Will my daughter, who has a mental illness, be OK here?’  Deep breath…

The Unite Students Insight Report was published on 31 August 2016. This article is part of a series inspired by the report and the wider dataset.

One response to “Universities must be honest with students whose needs they cannot meet

  1. How refreshing to read a piece of work that opens up doors of honest discussion about barriers to learning from the students position and the universities. Many of those Barriers have been bridged allowing a far greater number of students to forfil there goals. Mental health as discussed in this report has shown the complexities of being able to support effectively. Questioning whether These learning environments are the right place and whether it’s the right time for one to pursue learning goals. I believe we have to feel safe in each environment to learn before we can move to the next. Mazlows hierarchy of needs. Overcoming barriers is what will move us to reach our potential.

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