Halfon gives an update on student mental health

How's the HE mental health taskforce getting on?

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

Speaking at the Universities UK Mental health and wellbeing conference 2023, skills and higher education minister Robert Halfon said that student mental health is the number one issue that he sees in his inbox and from other MPs, as he shared updates on the progress of the Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce.

Halfon said that the government is looking to appoint an organisation with suitable experience to deliver the planned national review of student suicides, and the minister hoped to announce further details “very shortly”. As we’ve previously reported, this review will only consider “student suicides and near-misses occurring in the 2023-24 academic year,” which has drawn opprobrium from families campaigning for better student mental health support.

Also expected in the coming weeks is the outcome of work from the Office for Students on better coordination between universities and NHS Trusts – something the sector has long considered essential to the effective management of mental health support for students.

As for the taskforce, led by Nottingham Trent University vice chancellor Edward Peck, its work is formed around three strands, as set out in Halfon’s original letter in the summer: adoption of good practice, identification of students at risk, and a university-student commitment on adoption of policies, procedures, and communications that have wellbeing in mind.

Good practice adoption is focused on uptake of the Student Minds university mental health charter – which Halfon has urged all eligible universities to adopt. The number of sign-ups, at 96, has not changed since Student Minds published the latest numbers in September, but the charity will be considering whether the awards process needs to change to better accommodate smaller or specialist providers.

On better identification of students at risk, Peck cited pre-enrolment surveys as a useful approach that many universities are taking, with the caveat that these may be ineffective in identifying many of those most at risk, and problematic to make compulsory.

Another emphasis here is refinements to UCAS application and referee data – Halfon saw an “opportunity” in widening the breadth and depth of the information UCAS collects on student mental health, which could then be shared with universities. One problem with leaning on UCAS data in this way is of course the large proportion of the student body, especially international and PG, that does not go through this route.

Effective use of student engagement data for analytics is the other aspect of this strand – Peck indicated that the taskforce would be publishing further guidance to improve the quality, availability, and interoperability of student data to drive analytics. In the new year the taskforce will turn its attention to redesigning student support systems on the premise of the existence of an effective data infrastructure – not something that as yet, every university can boast.

The planned University Student Commitment will focus on compassionate academic processes – Peck held up work being conducted at Exeter around “compassionate communication” as an example, though he also wanted to stress that this was about policies and processes as well as comms. He gave the example of refraining from releasing assessment marks at midnight as something that could be agreed upon across the sector.

The taskforce is due to present an interim report early in the new year, and conclude its work by summer 2024. Halfon finished his speech by repeating his earlier warnings that he will “not hesitate” to ask the Office for Students to introduce a new condition of registration if the sector’s progress on these various voluntary initiatives is found to be lacking.

2 responses to “Halfon gives an update on student mental health

  1. Helpful and useful article. Thank you for this. There are several useful links, but do you have a link to the work on compassionate communication at Exeter, please?

  2. The number one issue? I doubt that – funding questions must surely be the biggest, unless it’s the number one issue he chooses to consider of course

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