Wonkfest preview: mental health, morale and wellbeing

It has been a tumultuous year for the sector. Following strikes over pensions, disaffection with senior management, casualisation of labour, ongoing criticism of marketisation and the rise of metrics and frameworks, morale is at an all time low. What’s gone wrong, and how we are going to fix it?

There is no shortage of information to suggest that student and staff wellbeing as a whole needs focus and solutions over the coming year. Recent analysis by the BBC found that the number of students seeking mental health support has increased by over 50% in the five years to 2017, with the National Union of Students suggesting it is because young people are under increasing pressure to perform and the Department for Education adding that universities need to provide better pastoral care for students. Just this week the Office for Students and GuildHE published reports on the state of student wellbeing.

Love’s labour lost?

Meanwhile, the specific roles of HE staff in dealing with student mental health issues has been unclear, often putting academics in a tricky situation. Richard Hall of De Montfort University previously explained on Wonkhe how academics can often feel like their work is a “labour of love”, a notion all too often played up by those working in the sector and beyond – academics are seen as contributing to the public good, which makes it tempting to view the university in utopian terms. Rachel Piper of Student Minds described how, when student support services are unable to meet demand, that role automatically falls to academics. As academics often have a pre-existing relationship with students, they are the easiest point of contact for many, and limiting their role to signposting is often easier said than done.

Jim Dickinson looked at whether mental health was receiving the same treatment as other policy problems in that the sector is being urged by ministers and market regulators to take action first, with the lingering threat of action if they don’t get the issue under control.

Addressing the issues

Is this issue new? Michelle Morgan of Bournemouth University argued that it’s not and that we must take into account other factors such as the rise in self disclosures of mental health issues. If we accept that there is a problem, even that we are facing a crisis in mental health at universities, then can there be a consensus on how to move forward as a sector? This will be the focus of our expert panel on our Debate Stage at Wonkfest next week: Mandi Barron of student services organisation AMOSSHE, Rosie Tressler, CEO of Student Minds, Eva Crosson Jory, vice president of welfare at NUS, Neil McKenzie of Sheffield Students’ Union and Jenny Shaw of Unite Students all weigh in on the debate about whether there are clear cut next steps on improving student and staff mental health.

Dominic Smithies, who co-authored Student Minds’ report on LGBTQ+ student mental health, published earlier this year, will offer his thoughts on what campuses are like for LGBTQ+ students and how they can be better catered for alongside Wonkhe’s Rachael Firth, NUS’s LGBT+ officer Eden Ladley, and Pete Mercer of Stonewall, a charity which campaigns for the equality of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people across Britain. Student Minds will also be conducting a more interactive, high-impact workshop as part of our Learning to Wonk series, focusing on transforming higher education through mental health policy and co-produced strategies.

And don’t forget to join us at our Debate Stage on Monday: From backgrounds in employer relations, HR and senior management, Joe Cooper of Imperial College London, Jo Grady of the University of Sheffield and Adam Tickell of the University of Sussex will contribute to a lively discussion on what we should make of action on campus morale.

Wonkfest takes place at Ravensbourne on 5-6 November. Have a look at the full programme here.

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