Readers of Times Higher Education will be fully aware of the increasing focus on mental health in universities.
Universities UK has reported that 94 per cent of universities have seen a sharp increase in the number of people trying to access student support services. In some cases, there have been three-fold increases in the demand for counselling. If this demand continues to rise, the ability of universities to offer tailored and personal care will be severely constrained. There should be a focus on both prevention, early intervention and world-class service provision. The University Mental Health Charter, released on 28 June, will help the sector to achieve this.
Charters that recognise and reward high-performing institutions can make a real difference in shifting institutional culture and behaviours. Athena SWAN is the classic example and has sharpened the focus of universities’ efforts in advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The UPP Foundation awarded its first grant to Student Minds two years ago. We provided £55,000 to support a pilot project at Nottingham Trent University that saw Student Minds interview and train staff and students working and living in student accommodation. It concluded with a guidance pack for universities. Student Minds is a brilliant charity that has, over the past 10 years, grown into a vital voice in higher education.
The opportunity to partner with a great charity to develop an initiative that will create lasting change was a no-brainer.
The development of the charter is funded by the UPP Foundation and is led by Student Minds, the National Union of Students, UUK, the Office for Students, and it has the backing of universities minister Sam Gyimah. The charter is being developed and piloted over three years, and it will evolve based on collaboration with students and staff. The charter will be voluntary for institutions and, while supported by the sector, is critically independent of the government or universities themselves.
I have not met a single person working at a university who doesn’t recognise the importance of improving student and staff mental health. Currently, there is little in the way of rewarding excellence – the charter will change that. It will recognise and reward institutions that deliver improved student mental health and well-being outcomes and will build on the “whole university” approach to mental well-being, set out in the Stepchange framework by UUK in order to engage vice-chancellors in the university-wide transformation that is required.
The whole university approach might sound like a cliché, but it is fundamentally important. Every aspect of a university impacts on student and staff well-being, from how accommodation is designed and run, and the timetabling of courses, to how lectures and classes are taught, and participation in extracurricular activities. That means that all students and staff, from the dean of a faculty to a laboratory technician, have an important role to play.
The charter will be evidence-led and developed in partnership with students and the sector. It will reward institutions that can demonstrate that the interventions they make are based on the best available research, and ultimately provide the best support for the UK’s 2.3 million students.
Over the next few years, the charter will be the key indicator of whether universities are delivering for their students on well-being. I very much hope that your institution will consider applying for charter status in the near future.
For more information about the University Mental Health Charter and Student Minds visit www.studentminds.org.uk/charter
Richard Brabner is director of the UPP Foundation.