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Tomorrow is University Mental Health Day

  • 17 February 2015
  • By Nick HIllman

Tomorrow – Wednesday, 18th February 2015 – is University Mental Health Day. The 2014 HEPI / HEA Student Academic Experience Survey suggested that, on average, students’ wellbeing may be lower than that for the population as a whole. Last week, the excellent new Student Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education: Good Practice Guide was launched at a conference organised by the Working Group for the Promotion of Mental Well-Being in Higher Education, supported by Universities UK – part of various on-going attempts to address the problem.

The final section of a speech I delivered at the event is printed below.

There are two specific features of the British higher education system that are different from those in many other countries that may be relevant to the mental health of students.

First, we have a national system of higher education in which people, typically, go away from home for three years on what I call the boarding-school model. (There is, incidentally, a growing body of work on the long-term psychological consequences of attending boarding school too.) Our model is unusual. For example, around half of EU states offer students no support for living costs because there is an assumption that you stay at home. Our system has some real strengths, widely recognised in the international league tables, but it also means the experience of going to higher education in the UK is more likely to involve moving away from home, meeting a whole new set of peers and financial independence than it is elsewhere. It is also more likely to mean changing medical provision, such as one’s GP surgery, and other support structures.

This is doubly true for international students who are moving from another country and another culture, and we have a higher proportion of international students among our student body than most countries.

The boarding-school model does not suit everyone but the growing interest at Hefce and elsewhere in tacking higher education cold-spots may provide some relief. The recent HEPI book What do I get: Ten essays on student choice, student engagement and student fees includes chapters by new low-cost providers of higher education that are focused on serving their local areas and there remains scope for more provision of this sort – although it should be recognised that the institutional pastoral care on offer may be different to within a more conventional higher education institution.

Before working in the policy world, I sent five years as a secondary school teacher. I am still haunted by tales of former students who ended up on a course or at a university that didn’t suit them. Yet a second difference between the UK higher education system and those elsewhere is the comparative difficulty in changing course and changing institution when you change your mind.

In a recent report for us, ‘Only Connect’: Is there still a single higher education sector?the brilliant Professor David Watson, who very sadly has just passed away, shone a light on the low number of transfers, blaming it on:

  • institutional protectionism;
  • funding rules;
  • cultural rigidity;
  • unempirical pedagogy; and
  • management errors.

We know from work undertaken for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a few years ago that ‘students who “drop out” want to return to education in future’. The researchers concluded: ‘They are the real lifelong learners: policy makers and institutions have yet to catch up with them.’ For me, that is a strong argument both for universities to look again at the credit transfer arrangements they have in place but also for even better information before going to university, which would help ensure the best possible match between students and institutions. It is also an argument for providing new students with the warmest possible welcome when they arrive. There is a growing body of evidence that students are more likely to stay the distance when they have good arrangements for newcomers.

An interesting new announcement has just been made at George Washington University in the United States, which may have passed you by. They have just announced an increase in tuition fees of 3.4 per cent – to a whopping $50,367 a year – but they have also said much of the extra funding will be used to fund more than eight new positions in the University Counselling Center.

According to the media, my namesake at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Nicholas Hillman, a professor specialising in financial aid for students, has said linking the increase in fees to the demand for counselling services could better connect the university community to the issue of students’ mental health.

It is hard to imagine the amount of money available for educating each student being increased in the UK on the specific grounds that it would enable more funding for mental health support for students – or even that policymakers would see this as a useful way of earning support for higher fees. The many excellent organisations and individuals seeking to help improve the mental wellbeing of students will know they have succeeded when that no longer seems such an unlikely outcome.

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