A 132 per cent rise in the number of students declaring a mental health problem has sparked fears that government funding cuts may force universities to make “increasingly tough decisions” about the support they can provide.
An analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency records found that nearly 18,000 students at English higher education providers said that they had a mental health problem in 2012-13, compared with fewer than 8,000 in 2008-09.
The research, carried out for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, says that the most selective institutions experienced a much bigger rise, averaging 157 per cent, compared with universities with lower entry requirements, where the increase was 104 per cent.
This means that 1.4 per cent of all students in England declared a mental health problem in 2012-13, with specialist and elite institutions again experiencing higher rates than less selective universities.
Interviews with 165 staff and students at 12 higher education institutions, conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies and Lancaster University, did indicate that a more open culture around mental health and improved diagnostic procedures were felt to have contributed to the rise.
The success of widening participation and the provision of courses that are felt to coincide with higher proportions of learners declaring mental health problems or other difficulties – for example, some music technology and computer games courses attract large numbers of autistic students – were given as other possible factors.
The researchers also found that higher tuition fees “may be inciting fresh anxieties once studying”, translating into “increasing pressure to succeed” from relatives or in the job market.
“Pressure to succeed was said to be particularly exacerbated at some more selective institutions in recent times,” the report says.
In addition to students with declared mental health problems, the analysis of Hesa data found that 5.7 per cent of English students in 2012-13 had specific learning difficulties, and 4.7 per cent had other disabilities or impairments.
The researchers found that Hefce’s student opportunity disability allocation, which could be at risk from government cuts, was an important source of funding. It totalled £14.5 million in 2014-15.
A key concern for interviewees was the government’s planned cut in Disabled Students’ Allowance, which would force universities to take over the bulk of provision.
One university employee went as far as to warn that the change could force universities to reject applications from disabled students, while another feared that it could deter students from disclosing their disabilities.
In a document setting out its response to the research, Hefce says it will work to ensure that funding for disabled students is “appropriately balanced with public investment”.
There is “clear concern”, Hefce says, that shifting too far towards reliance on fee income derived from the student population as a whole “may result in institutions having to make increasingly tough decisions about who and what they can support”.
A separate report focusing on students with specific learning difficulties, prepared for Hefce by York Consulting and the University of Leeds, says that the number of learners in this category has increased by about a third in four years.
In 25 institutions that were sampled, up to 27.2 per cent of the student population had a learning difficulty. But all interviewees reported a lack of consistency in provision owing to “rogue departments” or “out-of-touch lecturing staff”.