The best and worst of times

VWV's Kris Robbetts explains how we can support students through their transition to higher education

The start of the academic year is always an exciting time but also a period of significant and often daunting transition for those taking their first steps into higher education. It was, therefore, welcome news that at a summit in Bristol on 28 June 2018, Minister for Higher Education Sam Gyimah announced a new mental health initiative aimed at, among other things, better supporting students who struggle to make the jump from school to university.

Recognition that freshers are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues is well established. Now it is envisaged that a DfE-led working group tasked with considering what role universities can play in supporting new students will identify key recommendations and best practice for secondary and tertiary education providers. This should help all institutions, whether or not they have already implemented various measures for students, to take a more holistic approach to academic and social issues and to continue to develop and refine what is done in response to the demands of each discipline and student cohort.

A new mental health charter

Underlying this proposal are plans to introduce certificates of excellence for providers which meet new standards of mental health care. The rationale for this change, which comes at a time when recognition of the importance of mental health has never been greater and providers are looking for additional ways to differentiate themselves from rivals, is to reinforce the message that higher education is about more than just academic study. It is a leadership issue that must be addressed by vice-chancellors and governing bodies at an institution-wide level. It is also something that prospective students and their parents will be able to take into account when deciding where to apply.

In order to help providers improve their approach, there will be a new student mental health charter, to be piloted over a three-year period, setting out the criteria to meet in order to demonstrate that adequate student (and staff) mental health support measures are in place. Whilst the content of the charter is not yet clear, it might include demonstrating a more joined-up approach to mental health issues generally, be that through the better co-ordination of university and NHS services or ensuring there is access to the support needed throughout the student ‘life cycle’. It is hoped that all institutions in the HE sector will ultimately sign up to the project, which is supported by a £100,000 grant from the University Partnerships Programme (UPP) and will be led by the charity Student Minds, with input from the Office for Students, National Union of Students and Universities UK.

“Whilst there may never be agreement about whether HE providers should act in loco parentis, there is consensus on the value of anticipatory approaches that recognise when as well as why students are vulnerable.”

In loco parentis?

Perhaps the most striking statement made during the Gyimah announcement is that universities should see themselves as being

‘in loco parentis’ – an old-fashioned term meaning to be ‘in the place of parents’ by accepting all of the responsibilities that implies.

In practice, this would mean universities doing what is reasonable in all the circumstances to safeguard and promote students’ welfare and signifies a legal as well as a moral duty. This is the position that schools, local authorities and guardians have long recognised in respect of children in their care, but not something that readily translates into the delivery of higher education to adults.

One problem is that the notion of in loco parentis is not consistent with the more recent legal concept of Parental Responsibility, which refers to the various rights and responsibilities that parents have for their own children, as this diminishes as children approach the age of majority and extinguishes entirely when they turn 18.

Another is that it is an approach that many in the HE sector are likely to reject as inappropriate for students who are no longer children and whose higher education experience is to a large extent expected to be defined by them becoming more independent and autonomous than they were at school.

Whichever view is taken, this idea does place welcome focus on the importance of the transition from childhood to the adult world and the need to bridge what can be a sudden and potentially dangerous jump from supported study at school to, only a few short months later, relatively unfettered freedom as an undergraduate.

Towards a new support model?

More likely to gain traction is the proposed implementation of an ‘opt in’ alert system where during their first week students may, if they want to, authorise the university to contact their parents in the event of a mental health emergency. The logic is that restrictions currently imposed by data protection rules would no longer act as a barrier to intervention from family. It also accords with the results of the 2017 Reality Check report from HEPI, which found that 66% of the 2,000 applicants surveyed with mental health conditions would be willing for their university to contact a parent or guardian about their condition. Some universities have already committed to implementing this approach, and propose to start asking students to nominate who should be contacted if major concerns arise. This is a softer line than the one advocated by some parents who have called for this to be an ‘opt out’ system, but may well succeed in preventing further tragedies.

Growing expectation from both prospective applicants and government that providers will be transparent about how much support they make available to students suggests that some form of specific league table is not far away. Nevertheless, views on the extent to which HE providers should be expected to resource specialist student services remain mixed. While all providers offer a level of support, some institutions maintain that as their core function is to be an educational institution, their remit is being distorted. Others are embracing the challenges of increased demand by reconfiguring their support model through restructuring (for example by using a combination of counsellors and mentors) and outsourcing (by entering into partnership arrangements with local NHS commissioned services).

Kris Robbetts

Prevention rather than cure

Another source of disagreement is the perception that some institutions are using the term ‘wellbeing services’ to rebrand what was previously known as mental health support and, in particular, counselling. Objections to this are based on the view that as ‘wellbeing’ is a much wider concept than ‘mental health’, encompassing everything from healthy eating to therapy, it is actually a way of diluting resource when demand for substantive specialist support is greater than ever.

Looked at another way, this is really an argument about the merits of prevention or cure, with well-being services being symptomatic of a preventative approach and counselling of treatment. Whilst a combination of the two is always likely to be needed, the new report from the Mental Health Policy Commission ‘Investing in a resilient generation’ (July 2018) is clear that on economic grounds alone prevention rather than cure must be the policy priority.

The government’s latest mental health proposals complement the range of initiatives already in place through the work of organisations such as Universities UK and demonstrate the extent to which this issue has become a priority for the sector nationally. Whilst there may never be agreement about whether HE providers should act in loco parentisthere is consensus on the value of anticipatory approaches that recognise when as well as why students are vulnerable.

Kris Robbetts is a Senior Associate at leading education law firm VWV. Kris can be contacted on 0117 314 5427 or at krobbetts@vwv.co.uk.

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