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Should pastoral support training be mandatory for staff in higher education?

  • 18 July 2023
  • By Rose Stephenson
  • This HEPI blog was authored by Rose Stephenson, Director of Policy at HEPI.

HEPI ran a blog in June by Jessica Hayball, who is delivering mandatory pastoral support training to personal tutors and doctoral supervisors at the University of Bath. Publishing the blog prompted a question about whether this work should fall on the shoulders of academics.

I previously worked as a secondary school teacher. Every teacher, without fail, was required to complete mandatory safeguarding training on an annual basis. This covered spotting the signs of abuse, neglect, and mental health concerns, and how to respond if a pupil disclosed a safeguarding issue. This meant that those times (and I remember each and every one of them) that a pupil trusts you enough to tell you that they have experienced something awful, you are calm, confident and prepared. You also know how to respond without jeopardising a potential court case.

As a teacher, you are also clear that it is not your job to fix the problem. You listen to the student carefully and contact the safeguarding lead, who will co-ordinate the response – contacting social services and other agencies as needed. It may be that you continue to support that student, particularly academically, but other professionals take the lead on the safeguarding case, or mental health support that is needed. (I finished teaching 7 years ago and appreciate that social services and child mental health services are under even more profound pressure now than they were then).

When I started working in higher education, I could not believe that there was no equivalent training for colleagues working with students. Yes, (most) university students are over the age of 18. And yes, higher education colleagues who regularly work with under 18-year-olds should be trained to the same standards as teachers, for under 18s. However, given the high levels of sexual misconduct that adult students face, and the high levels of mental ill-health in the student population, it seems a failure to not provide basic disclosure training to colleagues working closely with students over the age of 18.

During my time working in higher education, I have heard concerning responses to students that are struggling. This includes in a case of alleged sexual harassment of a female student ‘it’s part of working in this field, you just need to get used to it’ and in relation to a student struggling with their mental health ‘have a glass of wine, that always makes me feel better’. Whilst these colleagues may have thought they were being supportive, their advice was misguided at best.

There is a complexity of issues happening that is driving these responses, but how can we expect colleagues to respond appropriately if we don’t train them on how to do so?

A simple disclosure response of: ‘I’m sorry that this happened to you; let’s discuss what I can do to help’, combined with a knowledge of specialist services in the institution, allows staff to respond to the student, empathise and show belief. Having a short, well-practised script like this also avoids colleagues falling into traps of victim-blaming or invalidating experiences.

Research shows that for sexual assault cases, the response a victim/survivor receives to their first disclosure is a key indicator to their recovery. And ensuring that students are swiftly signposted to wellbeing services when they are struggling with their mental health is vital.

Safeguarding under 18s is a statutory obligation, and therefore the expectations in the school system are different. I’m not in favour of infantilising adults, just because they are in higher education. But we are failing staff as much as students if we do not give them the tools to respond confidently to students in distress, signpost to professional services who can provide specialist support, and be clear in their boundaries and responsibilities to keep themselves safe as well as the students.

We are anticipating the implementation of the new Office for Student Condition of Registration for preventing and responding to harassment and sexual misconduct on campus. The consultation states:

In relation to training for staff, our view is that staff must receive appropriate and effective training to enable them to handle the issues that they may encounter. These issues are likely to vary in complexity because the proposed condition covers issues ranging from prevention of harassment and sexual misconduct, to training for staff and students, and reporting and investigatory processes. It is likely that specific training will be required to support staff to deliver steps that could make a significant and credible difference in protecting students.

Ultimately, this training keeps students, staff (and, for the cynics, institutions) safe. So yes, I do think that this work should land on the shoulders of academics, as they are likely to encounter students disclosing difficulties, or showing signs that they are struggling. This training should also cover the boundaries of the academic roles, and how and when to refer to specialist services. However, this work shouldn’t just fall on academics, but any staff who have regular face to face contact with students, such as cleaners, security staff, sports facilities staff and colleagues working with students in faculty. So, if a student does disclose an issue or harassment, or a mental health concern, they are responded to calmly, confidently and by a colleague who is well prepared.

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