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How can we use data to improve student and staff wellbeing?

  • 9 February 2024
  • By Michelle Morgan
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Dr Michelle Morgan, Dean of Students at the University of East London.
  • This piece is the second part of two discussing the rise in student mental health issues. The first part was published yesterday: you can read it here.

Higher education has come a long way in recognising and being aware of mental health issues that students enter their studies with. This includes better data collected through UCAS,  work undertaken via AdvanceHE with their Education for Mental Health Toolkit,  TASO’s Student Mental Health Evidence Hub and the development of the University Mental Health Charter.

Using the University Mental Health Charter to improve student and staff wellbeing

I was privileged to be asked to comment on the draft University Mental Health Charter (UMHC) with my transitions specialist hat on when it was being created. As a UMHC assessor and as a university recipient of the award, I strongly feel that the University Mental Health Charter is a valuable tool for universities. For institutions who are uncertain about the charter, it is important to recognise that an institution’s application is not assessed by national metrics/standards but by their own submission and the evidence they present. As part of the assessment, there is also a site visit, where discussion occurs with key stakeholders. All assessors are trained and are highly experienced in their own area of higher education. The Charter framework recognises that every university will have different issues and challenges because the student body will be different. It helps universities identify:

  • The good practice that is taking place within the institution;
  • What could be improved;
  • What interlinking of information sharing occurs and where it could be developed; and
  • The risks within and across each of the 18 themes.

Due to the interest in the Charter, all the available assessment slots for 2023/24 are filled. However, this does not stop an institution from using the UMHC Framework to scope out its work (and engage with the UMHC Programme activities fully), regardless of when it wishes to (join the Programme and) go through an assessment. Programme membership will open later this year for the 2024/25 Programme.

Future steps in using better data to bridge gaps in real time

One challenge higher education institutions have is not being able to access and join up key information from across the different organisations involved in the study journey. This includes information held by schools and colleges, UCAS, institutions and the Student Loan Company.

Professor Edward Peck, VC of Nottingham Trent University and the Government’s appointed Student Support Champion, has held roundtables with sector leaders to discuss how to effectively support the student experience, including the use of better data. The report from the first stage of the HE Mental Health Implementation Taskforce has just been published.

The recent report entitled Prior learning experience, study expectations of A-Level and BTEC students on entry to university and the impact of Covid-19  contains commentaries from over 30 sector leaders. These leaders have made a number of recommendations on how supporting diversity across all levels of study will improve the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff.

The recommendations include:

1. The appropriate and consistent sharing of information on declared mental health, disability and other learning challenges to key staff such as course leaders and personal tutors, and effective training for staff on how to interpret and use this information effectively and correctly. All too often, GDPR and legal departments within universities are worried about relevant information being disclosed even if a student has agreed for it to be shared, due to concerns about possible legal ramifications. Barriers to declarations need to be reviewed.

2. As part 1 of my blog highlighted, there are a number of situations that contribute to mental health challenges. And often it is a combination of factors as this list from MINDS What causes mental health problems?  highlights. They can include:

  • Childhood abuse, trauma, or neglect
  • Social isolation or loneliness
  • Experiencing discrimination and stigma, including racism
  • Social disadvantage, poverty or debt
  • Bereavement (losing someone close to you)
  • Severe or long-term stress
  • Having a long-term physical health condition
  • Unemployment or losing your job
  • Homelessness or poor housing
  • Being a long-term carer for someone
  • Drug and alcohol misuse
  • Domestic violence, bullying or other abuse as an adult
  • Significant trauma as an adult, such as military combat, being involved in a serious incident in which you feared for your life, or being the victim of a violent crime
  • Physical causes (e.g. Head injury or a neurological condition such as epilepsy can have an impact on your behaviour and mood.

Typically there is a narrow description of what constitutes mental health in university policy but it needs to encompass the challenges listed above. It is also important to collect pertinent data, such as whether it is a long-term, permanent or short-term condition. This will help manage a student’s journey, understand what evidence is required an identify what actions universities must take.

3. Institutions being aware of the differences in prior experiences and concerns by student characteristics. This requires more proactivity in pre-empting upcoming issues by collecting the right data, including by using pre-arrival course questionnaires.

4. Launching a national pilot pulling together PAQ experts to create a consistent survey and to implement it across the institutions in the UK, with the results informing national and sector wide policy.

5. Joining up datasets from school/college to application to university (UCAS) through to graduation to avoid students having to keep providing basic information (e.g. disability, gender).

6. Collecting and using engagement data in a more nuanced and consistent way to take into account student differences and link with sense of belonging data.

The duty of care debate currently taking place and all its legal ramifications is an important discussion to be had as uncomfortable and as challenging as it may be.  As a sector, we need to create a safe environment where it is OK not to be OK and where one feels safe to allow themselves to be vulnerable. But to do that, we need the right data on entry to bridge the gaps in our diverse student body. As Robin Williams once said:

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

We need the right data that gives us the ‘story’, which enables us to engage the ‘readers’ in the most effective way to keep them engaged, safe and supported.

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