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Jisc and the mental health crisis in our universities

  • 17 July 2018
  • By Martin Hall

Could data and analytics help to promote student wellbeing and mental health? Jisc commissioned independent global higher education expert Professor Martin Hall to examine this idea and he highlights the key findings of his report in this guest blog. Professor Hall was former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salford and former Jisc Chair.

The impact of mental health issues on people and their futures can be illustrated in the story of one student, a keen violinist, whose depression led her to stop playing the instrument, instead watching hours of the US reality TV show Dance Moms.

Stories like this show how poor mental health and a low sense of wellbeing impacts on many aspects of life, including academic achievement. And it is a growing problem – the most recent Student Academic Experience Survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Advance HE shows both that students’ sense of wellbeing is less than the population as a whole and that the level of student wellbeing is falling.

The growing crisis is now being recognised at the highest levels. Last month, universities and science minister Sam Gyimah announced a charter for best practice to set and measure standards of care, requiring appropriate provision of counselling and support services.

As with all aspects of health provision, comprehensive and reliable data, collected in accord with ethical standards and appropriately protected, will prove central to the success of this initiative. Here, Jisc can make a major contribution to mitigating the mental health crisis through its new national Learning Analytics service, available to all colleges and universities in Britain.

In a 2015 survey by the National Union of Students, 78% of students said they had experienced mental health issues in the last year; and had had suicidal thoughts. In 2017 the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) reported that there has been a fivefold increase in the number of students who had disclosed a mental health condition to their college or university over the past decade. The number of student suicides is rising.

Our focus on learning analytics is enabling colleges and universities to improve academic attainment using proven protocols to identify students at risk, triggering supportive interventions. Analysing data at the cohort level helps teachers understand how learning can be improved, enabling students to realise their potential and aspirations. At the institutional level, learning analytics enable insightful planning decisions and the best use of resources. Many of these data sets have a parallel utility in assuring student mental health.

As they move around the campus, access library and online sources and log into the university’s learning management systems, students leave ‘digital footprints’. These data sets are proxies for behaviour and indicators of a person’s state of mind. Their value in understanding how to improve learning and the student experience is proven; their potential for contributing wellbeing and mental health is evident.

For example, typically, there is an unusually long period over which a student fails to log in to the course management system, or access an online resource managed by the university library, or use an access card to swipe into a classroom or make a purchase at the campus cafeteria. This data pattern triggers an alert to a personal tutor or a course manager, who then contacts the student to find out whether assistance is required.

The key indicators that have been found effective in anticipating the need for academic support could also be relevant to flagging mental health risks; additional digital patterns could be identified and applied in consultation with mental health and counselling specialists.

In a recent and significant policy position on the student mental health crisis, Universities UK has stressed the importance of a ‘whole university’ approach; the full integration of academic and professional services through which universities are reconfigured as ‘health-promoting and supportive environments’. The value in this perspective is demonstrated in a survey by Unite Students. This found that 12% of applicants for student accommodation reported pre-existing mental health conditions and that academic pressure, anxiety about present and future circumstances and daily interactions with peers were strongly interconnected.

This ‘whole university’ strategy is closely aligned with Jisc’s learning analytics architecture, which is designed to assemble multiple sources of information as a data hub, with common standards and comprehensive data protection, allowing deep and revealing analyses.

Comprehensive and reliable data sets are also necessary for shaping effective public policy at the system level. Both positive mental health and enrolment in post-compulsory education are indexed to where a person lives, and therefore to household income inequality.  By consequence, colleges and universities have widely differing student wellbeing profiles, and varied requirements in the provision of wellbeing resources.

Jisc’s ability to assemble large and informative data sets at national levels, and over the full span of time that a student cohort is in education, will widen the scope of existing public health data sets, providing key policy insights. Realising this potential will require extensive consultation with mental health specialists and student representatives to ensure meaningful and ethical practices, with data protection specialists to ensure compliance with health data requirements and privacy rights, and with university and sector leadership to achieve the right balance between individual institutions’ needs and the benefits of sector-wide collaboration.

Minister Sam Gyimah believes that some universities are doing well, but there are others that in his own words, have a way to go towards his meeting his goal of making sure that every student is better supported when it comes to their mental health and wellbeing.

The Department for Education will be working with the NHS, the charity Student Minds, the Office for Students (OfS) and Universities UK to set the criteria for the new best practice charter. Comprehensive and reliable data, across the full diversity of Britain’s higher education system, will prove central to this initiative.

Student wellbeing and mental health: the opportunities in learning analytics is available here via the Jisc website.


  1. David Lewis says:

    I’m surprised that those promoting Learning Analytics consistently ignore the potential downsides of these intrusive and unproven programmes. There is a surely a risk that 24/7 surveillance of student activity and ill-founded interventions by unqualified staff аре likely to worsen rather than improve the situation. Reliance on flawed data is also likely to increase the chances that real problems are overlooked, and of course ignores the wider structural causes of mental health problems.

    1. Martin Hall says:

      David. Exactly. That’s why, in the report, I advocate an integrated approach to “wellbeing” in which indicators that require a potential intervention are always referred to a qualified professional. However, more needs to be done around the issue of “informed consent”, in consultation with student representatives.

  2. Lynne Fisher says:

    David Lewis has made a really important point here, and my fear is that a Learning Analytics approach to student mental health will be latched onto by those involved in Higher Education who fail to recognise the evidence that improving mental health is mostly about about human contact and it is ‘messy’. If HEIs jump on the bandwagon of using Learner Analytics at the same time as they continue to reduce investment in experienced professional staff and services (as has happened at USW), then student mental health will be put at higher risk, together with the mental health of well-intentioned but unqualified staff.

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