The increasing attention that is being paid to the mental health and well-being of students is welcome, much needed and overdue.
I was recently commissioned by the University of Manchester (UoM) Students’ Union to undertake a year-long investigation into well-being across the PhD community. As a current PhD student, who is looking at the cultural politics of well-being, this ethnographic study will inform my future work and hopefully that of the students’ union and the University of Manchester more broadly.
The project presented much-needed insight into the student body at a time of great change in higher education and limited knowledge of various aspects of well-being in the sector.
The primary outcome will be a report that contains recommendations designed to inform the future actions of the students’ union and feed into systems that inform broader UoM policy to support students, including the new well-being strategy at the university.
More on the 2017 Student Experience Survey
Student Experience Survey 2017: methodology
Student Experience Survey 2017: results
Student Experience Survey 2017: analysis of the 2017 results
Student Experience Survey 2017: hear from students at the top institutions
Student Experience Survey 2017: down on the farm at Harper Adams
Student Experience Survey 2017: bright stars of Northern Ireland
Student Experience Survey 2017: expectations are high for learning resources
Student Experience Survey 2017: Sheffield Union holds key to satisfaction
Student Experience Survey 2017: home comforts on campus
Student Experience Survey 2017: the shape of things to come in higher education
The enquiry found that all students are at risk of low well-being while attending a higher education institution. The literature review highlighted that PhD well-being is particularly overlooked at policy level and in academic study. Yet, the study corroborates what does exist; that marginally placed students are at greater risk of lower well-being.
Furthermore, disabled students, more than any other minority, were found to be at highest risk of low well-being. My focus group with some of UoM’s disabled students found that while there is some disability support available, it is insufficient and not easy to access, with the current systems exacerbating poor well-being. The research found that this issue of communicating what support is available, and how to find it, is a more generalised problem across higher education institutions.
While my findings were UoM specific, they also intersect with experiences at other higher education institutions. Interviews with students from other universities substantiated that the experiences at UoM were comparable, as were the systems that students thought could be better equipped to understand the complexity of poor well-being, especially when things go wrong, or for students who already have increased difficulties.
My research encountered different “cultures” of well-being, acceptability and accountability in different areas of the institution. Students from certain schools explained that the inherently competitive nature of their working environment was more likely to aggravate poor mental health, but as a student in these disciplines, you were least likely to seek help. In addition, you were also unlikely to confide in a peer, and these students were the least aware that institutional support from mental health professionals and counselling services was available to them.
The study found that students need to be encouraged to communicate their experiences of poor well-being and that there is much that can be done institutionally with regards to outlining what is available to them.
Research participants explained that this ethnographic study felt like the first time they had been asked for their opinion, while also complaining of too many emails about what they felt were irrelevant surveys. Respondents spoke of survey fatigue and commented that they were being asked to answer questions that did not apply to them, or did not enable them to say what they want. Students felt that the feedback they did offer, at course, faculty, school and institutional level was not listened to. This results in a perceived lack of value for their experiences.
I recommend that we improve survey designs, where possible, to include questions asking students about their broader experiences and that we complement surveys with much-needed ethnographic research on student well-being and broader aspects of their experience.
Institutional support and marginalised students
There is a perceived lack of support from the outset of the student experience, and this resounded with participants in both surveys that I re-analysed and in all the focus groups. There was a perceived change in the provision of services and in access to services, which was described as a shock for those who had experienced the institution from undergraduate through to PhD level.
There should be further consultations to identify groups of students who are at risk of being isolated from the institutions’ research culture, or broader aspects of university life. This would enable a better understanding of how to improve well-being and belonging. There must also be reviews into current lines of support and how aware different groups of students are of them. Those most marginalised are often those most in need of help, yet they find it the most difficult to navigate systems or know who, or how, to ask.
The students’ union should also become more involved throughout the year in explaining well-being resources. Departmental seminars and cross-year research seminars would be a good place to insert a reminder that the union is there for students and that the institution provides several modes of support that many students don't know about.
Students commented on their hopes for better networking opportunities, for social as well as professional benefits. There were calls for mentorship and the need for pastoral support outside a department, particularly if that department was perceived to have a negative and competitive culture.
Finding social spaces was described as a priority several times, and the alienating spaces for working were not seen to be conducive to this kind of nurturing social environment. In light of this, more space should be given to students to enable them to be social without impacting on the work of others, or requiring them to spend money on refreshments. The students’ union should also provide a supportive infrastructure for students to establish their own social gatherings and support groups.
What was clear from the study was that students felt that it was important that universities improve support for students and that this should take into account the multidimensional nature of well-being. The student experience is complex and personal and higher education systems cater too closely to the idea of a typical student. As such, students who are already marginalised become further marginalised through poor well-being.
The only way to understand the complexity of the student experience is to listen to what students say. Currently, this is not happening enough, if at all, in our universities, and this must change if we are to face the challenge of poor well-being in a way that is meaningful.