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Helping students and staff by creating positive and mindful universities

  • 21 September 2017

Leading educationalist Sir Anthony Seldon and the University of Buckingham’s Dean of Psychology Alan Martin have drawn up a 10-point plan for the creation of a ‘positive university’ based on the approaches used by positive psychology and mindfulness.

Sir Anthony launched the country’s first positive university at Buckingham, where he is Vice-Chancellor, earlier this year, and has now jointly written a blueprint for other higher education institutions in the UK and around the world in a pamphlet published by HEPI.

The publication, HEPI Occasional Paper (18) The Positive and Mindful University, proposes a number of ways to tackle the growing problem of mental health issues among students and also staff.

  • Pioneering ideas include educating not just the intellect but the emotions to try to improve resilience; and aiming to create lifelong benefits – not just academic – during the period students are at university.
  • There is an emphasis on educating everyone who works and studies at the university – academics, students, the leadership team and all the support staff – in the ways of the ‘positive university’. Measures for students include a wide range of initiatives from educating them about self-harm and financial literacy to sessions on mindfulness and well-being for all first years.
  • The authors argue there should be more support from the moment students accept an offer to start university. The report advocates the appointment of personal mentors and the creation of a standing student/university transition body.
  • A matriculation ceremony at the start could mirror graduation ceremonies at the end. Students should also receive records of achievement, citing a wide range of skills both academic and non-academic, as well as a graduation certificate.
  • Alternative activities should be offered to those who do not want to take part in the heavy drinking of freshers’ week and quiet rooms should be available for both students and staff for relaxation and reflection.

Sir Anthony Seldon said:

‘Research shows that a high proportion of students suffer from mental health problems at university. We need to do much, much more to help them with the transition, which is the biggest change in their lives.

‘Creating “positive universities” will help to enhance every aspect of being a student and will give them the support they need. If we don’t tackle this problem urgently the mental health crisis will deepen and there will be more lives lost needlessly.’

Dr Alan Martin said:

‘There are all sorts of stresses at university – exam stress is one of the biggest. By creating the best possible study environment and offering support to students from the moment they accept an offer to the day that they take their final exam, we can significantly reduce this stress. Academic results at other “positive universities” abroad have improved as a result of their changed status.’

Nick Hillman, the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

‘Around half a million people are about to embark on the biggest journey of their lives by enrolling at university. Generally, higher education is emancipating. But most students find the transition hard, some do not get the support they need and a few are so discontented that they fail to complete their course.

‘There has, quite rightly, been much discussion about the mental health of students recently. There is now more understanding of the key issues. But we need to move the conversation on. We must put just as much focus on avoiding low levels of wellbeing as on picking up the pieces when things go wrong. We also need to think about the wellbeing of staff as much of students.’

Notes for Editors

The paper lists 10 ways for improving the transition to university.

  1. ’Opt-out’ disclosure of mental health conditions, so that information is shared between schools, medical agencies and universities, plus monitoring students’ wellbeing using big data methods.
  2. Better preparation, whereby schools and colleges are encouraged to provide core information about university life – for example, on finance, diet and sleeping well.
  3. More pre-arrival contact, including communication from a personal tutor and a booklet on managing transition.
  4. Mentors for every first-year student, which will benefit the mentors as well as the mentees.
  5. Tutors, with regular meetings between tutors and students, and with tutors trained to spot worrying signs.
  6. Matriculation ceremonies that mirror graduation, inducting students to the ethos of their institution.
  7. Induction so that the norm for freshers is not heavy drinking with alternatives on offer that are adapted to students who do not wish to participate in such activity.
  8. A school to university transition body that develops co-ordinated strategies for enhancing positive mental health between levels of education.
  9. A Pro-Vice-Chancellor for transitions, with responsibility to ensure transitions are given priority at the highest levels.
  10. Parental involvement because parents have an important role in helping smooth transitions and because there should be a partnership – not a wall – between universities and parents.

In addition, the paper offers 10 ideas for creating the positive university for students, including: achievement targets for each student, offering mindfulness and relaxation classes and teaching first-year students about positive psychology.

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