Why should universities bother to meet students’ needs?

Anne Balls

Any universities looking to make a meaningful New Year’s resolution in 2018 should look no further than re-prioritising student mental health and wellbeing provision.

The rewards for making a measurable impact in this area would be all-encompassing.

Imagine being one of the UK’s first universities to fulfil better its duty of care by funding more and better outreach and support, or piloting new ways to reach Generation Z?

Imagine the pull of being that uni that delivers on its mission to be bold, innovative or open in an area that many would like to ignore?

Most of all, imagine how much better your current students would feel about you as an institution for acting positively to tackle head on the crisis in student mental health and wellbeing? Happier, more resilient students could only make for stronger performance, attendance rates and improving the student experience in higher education. That would be better learning all round.

Mental health matters. Smarter, not more costly interventions, could help students cope better with the major challenges they are faced with, like:

  • Transitioning to university
  • Money
  • Friendships and relationships
  • Academic pressures

It doesn’t need to cost a fortune. Open and inclusive dialogues on campus covering where students can get support is a must. If they don’t know where to go, or are too embarrassed to seek help, how will they get help?

In the 2017 Student Voices poll of 134 students (experiences of mental health at university), 127 students (95% of respondents) had personal experience of mental health difficulties and 100 of these said their mental health problems started at school. Schools programmes could make for more resilient teens who could understand stress better or be more prepared for uni, if that’s what they choose.

No one should wait to seek help until they see it as a last resort. Early intervention can stop more serious issues developing either at school or uni, so it will always be cost-effective.

The main mental ill-health message we have from students in 2016 is that universities “could do better”. The Student Voices survey highlighted both good poor practice. “It's good that [my university] had a student services,” one student said, “but the appointments were difficult to book and communication was poor.”

As Prof Steve West, Chair, Universities UK Mental Health in Higher Education Working Group, said:

“Student mental health begins with higher education leaders adopting mental health as a strategic imperative… Universities must work in close partnership with parents, schools and employers to prepare students for transitions and with the NHS to co-ordinate care for students.”

How would that be for an achievable resolution for 2018? More achievable, less costly and ultimately much better business than doing nothing.

For the universities and students, this would mean a happier and more sustainable New Year.