The minister for higher and further education has written to vice-chancellors, setting out her expectation that all universities in England join the University Mental Health Charter within five years.
In her letter to university leaders on 13 December, Michelle Donelan said she was “pleased to see mental health and wellbeing established as a long-term strategic priority by many providers” – but said she thought they “could and should do more”.
Forty universities in England have so far joined the charter, which is administered by the charity Student Minds.
Ms Donelan said she now expects all those HE providers in England not yet affiliated to sign up to the programme at the earliest opportunity. She wants all universities to join the charter within five years.
The next window for HE providers to join the charter is summer 2022.
The Office for National Statistics has found that nearly four in 10 students have reported mild or moderate depression, and 27% have reported signs of a possible eating disorder. A recent survey of university applicants found that nearly a quarter has experienced issues with eating or an eating disorder in the last year – a 30% increase on the figure recorded four years ago.
The Universities Mental Health Charter programme will help to improve mental health and wellbeing on campuses across the country, and I expect all universities to sign up as soon as possible
– Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education
The president of Universities UK, Prof Steve West, used his speech at the organisation’s mental health conference this November to warn vice-chancellors they risked “heavy-handed” regulation if they do not tackle poor mental health within the student community. He warned that ministers, keen to see results, might make the Student Minds charter a mandatory code of conduct.
“I worry – I suspect Student Minds worry – that, to mollify ministers, what is currently a voluntary charter, based on strong improvement methodology, may end up being used as a quasi-regulatory lever by the English sector regulator,” he told delegates.
The charter requires that institutions take “a whole-university approach” to mental health. The approach “requires both adequately resourced, effective and accessible mental health services and proactive interventions” and “an environment and culture that reduces poor mental health, as well as supporting good mental health”. Universities must start by conducting a self-assessment of their services.
“Programme members can work towards the Charter Award, which recognises those universities that promote good mental health and demonstrate excellent practice,” Donelan told vice-chancellors. “As an integral part of the framework, universities who voluntarily sign up for the charter award will undertake [a] rigorous and systematic evaluation of their services, interventions, culture, and practice that informs decision-making and continuous improvement.”
The Department for Education (DfE) will soon commission a new survey of university policies on mental health, wellbeing and suicide prevention, Donelan added.
“Protecting mental health has always been a personal priority of mine, and I remain committed to ensuring students get the support they need during this exceptionally challenging time,” said Donelan.
“The Universities Mental Health Charter programme will help to improve mental health and wellbeing on campuses across the country, and I expect all universities to sign up as soon as possible.”