University Mental Health Day: it's time to lift lid on patchy student support

Ahead of University Mental Health Day on 1 March, Robin Brinkworth argues that institutions must become far more open and accountable on how they are handling student problems

February 26, 2018
Stressed male student suffering from anxiety
Source: iStock

Greater public attention, more reporting and, quite frankly, more deaths on campus have focused minds on what has become known as the “student mental health crisis”.

Universities are now coordinating a sector-wide response, but it lacks crucial public oversight. Without it, the much-vaunted Step Change programme, initiated by Universities UK, risks becoming a glorified PR campaign.

The only accountability tool currently in use is provided by a handful of students and freelance journalists working on the UK University Mental Health Rankings, published by The Tab, which assesses institutions on how much they spend on support and perceptions of its effectiveness. It is innovative and valuable, but it cannot police an entire sector.

The Tab’s data show how difficult it is for universities to keep up with the demand for support services. It is not infrequent to see 20 to 40 per cent year-on-year increases in the number of students seeking counselling as budgets strain to keep up.

From 2011 to 2016, for instance, applications to Cardiff University’s mental health support service more than doubled to 2,696 students. Their budget increased by just under 26 per cent over the same period.

Cardiff is a useful case study, but the national picture is harder to draw together. Data are often missing or inaccessible due to ageing computer systems and paper records, while some institutions flat-out refuse to provide information.

Despite these challenges, the 2017 UK University Mental Health Rankings, which drew on responses from more than 12,000 students, have identified both success stories and under-performers.

There are some high-fliers, such as the University of Kent, which has increased its investment in its counselling services since 2011 by more than 145 per cent and has good student satisfaction with its care. Yet there are also major causes for concern.

The University of York, which was chosen for the pilot of Universities UK’s Step Change programme, however, fares less well and is significantly below average for student satisfaction scores.

Beyond these indications of a care system under stress, our rankings demonstrate a singular lack of accountability on the part of universities.

Prior to my creation of the UK University Mental Health Rankings in 2016, student activists and local papers could request data on services, but such data are by nature without context for comparison. Services could be underperforming and there would be no way of knowing.

The rankings now exist, yet they are the only source of public oversight for university mental health services in the UK. We do not have the capability or desire to become the equivalent to the NHS’ Care Quality Commission.

However, as the government is not inclined to police the sector, other parties have stepped in to effect change. At the second Digital Student Summit organised by StuComm, the student engagement platform, held earlier this month, students and academics put forward a series of ideas of how support could be improved and monitored more efficiently.

Step Change, UUK’s policy programme, developed by the Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Working Group (MWBHE), is a move in the right direction. However, York’s data suggest it has not been as successful as many would have hoped.

And the Step Change model itself offers minimal accountability – either internally to students or externally to taxpayers. We should expect more of our universities.

Neither Step Change nor the working group are independent and independence is required. The sector needs to self-regulate, by creating an independent body capable of establishing a national standard of care and acting as a data clearinghouse, to help propagate best practices.

One of the most urgent priorities is the need for universities to digitise their services and report data in a transparent fashion.

This is an opportunity. The government has vacated the policy space, so universities can lead to the benefit of all. For students, it may mean greater productivity, better services, more awareness, and most importantly, fewer deaths. For universities, the argument is even clearer – fewer negative headlines, more successful students, a healthier university environment, an industry-leading international model and more efficient services.

It requires a coalition of the willing and a self-examination that chronic under-performers may not be comfortable with.

Robin Brinkworth is web editor of The Student View and, as a student at University of Edinburgh, was the winner of the 2017 Mind student journalist of the year award for his work on the University Mental Health Rankings. For more coverage of University Mental Health Day, visit timeshighereducation.com on 1 March.

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