A report published by the Institute of Public Policy Research in 2016 showed the numbers of university students disclosing mental health problems had increased fivefold in a decade. Furthermore, ONS figures show 95 recorded student suicides for the 12 months to July 2017 in England and Wales.
Understandably, increasing pressure is being put on higher education providers to tackle this crisis. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education sector’s first watchdog, called for universities to improve student mental health services as a ‘top priority’. And higher education minister Sam Gyimah said that universities must deliver emotional support for students alongside academic courses in order to “fulfil (their) purpose”.
At Refero, we believe the responsibility for addressing the worrying trend in student mental health shouldn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of higher education providers. Indeed, Dandridge herself acknowledged that the issue is not the sole responsibility of universities but a wider social problem. With this in mind, we believe that attention should be dedicated to improving collaboration and integration across the wider eco-system of stakeholders.
The real issue here is not a lack of support services per se, but more a question of ensuring that students have easy access to them via an interconnected network of internal and external organisations – effectively a ‘safety net’ – and that these ‘touch points’ or engagements are fully governed and auditable to ensure that students do not fall through the gaps.
Why universities should lead the charge
Universities are relaxing their entry criteria; admissions service, UCAS, highlighted a huge rise in the number of unconditional offers for university places. Unfortunately, the noble goal to make higher education more widely accessible to all socio-economic groups often exposes some of the most vulnerable people in society to factors that could exacerbate mental health issues, e.g. financial stress due to rising tuition fees.
As participation has expanded, national trends in mental ill-health have materialised in student populations, causing an increase in demand for support services. Universities have reported a huge surge in demand for counselling services in recent years, with as many as one in four students either being seen or waiting to be seen by counselling services in some institutions. Yet, simultaneously, many establishments are cutting back on counselling in favour of ‘wellbeing’ services that encompass a much wider range of services. This approach has seen universities garner criticism for pushing back on the NHS. Again, the key here is not to ‘push back’ but to collaborate to offer ‘wrap-around’ care for students.
While holistic care of students requires input from multiple stakeholders, we believe universities are uniquely placed to lead the charge.
The business case for support services
So, what role do higher education providers play in facilitating wider engagement with multi-organisations? Clearly, universities have a duty of care to safeguard students – many of whom are away from their family in an unfamiliar environment for the first time – but there’s also a very real business case for tackling mental health. Students are a source revenue for universities and there is an obvious need to protect that income.
We know that student wellbeing and satisfaction is tied to retention rates, engagement and academic performance, thereby boosting universities’ results and reputation to help drive advantage in an increasingly competitive sector. By reducing the numbers of students that ‘drop out’, universities are able to protect and maintain revenues. A US study revealed that of the 100% of students that state a desire to leave, universities are only able to prevent 9% from going on to do so. It’s clear that prevention or early intervention is best; all too often we hear “if only we’d have known sooner, we could have intervened”.
Higher education providers must therefore be encouraged to work in close partnership with health and care organisations, local communities, parents and even employers to tackle mental health to improve student wellbeing, as well as protecting their own reputation and revenue. But aren’t universities already collaborating with other service providers?
Supporting existing ways of working
Today, there are many student services, from within the university and externally, already in existence but more often than not they operate in silos – with various people and platforms for engagement, lacking any one single overlay service delivering real integration and, crucially, tracking those student journeys.
Enrolment services tend to serve as the entry point into university life and the ideal opportunity to connect students to services such as the Student Union or bodies such as the National Union of Students (NUS), as well as valuable student support services from guidance counsellors, disability services or financial aid. However, this engagement tends to be quite fragmented today.
One of the most frequently asked questions by students is regarding the availability of local GP services. While many universities will provide links to primary care providers via their student enrolment facilities, there is often no further follow-up or audit trail ensuring that those students have indeed enrolled or have ready access to the services they may well require throughout their student life.
Technology providing the fabric of the ‘safety net’
Technology enables new ways of engaging people and connecting them with support services; there is a need to harness technology to improve and build upon more traditional ways of working – disrupting rather than destabilising existing models – to eliminate the possibility of students falling through the cracks at the point where services cross over.
Students should be able to sign up to an online platform and send requests to their university ranging from “Where’s the nearest bus to campus?” to “How can I get an appointment to see my GP?”. Simple questions regarding campus, logistics and course details can be picked up and responded to easily by a receptionist or administrator. But the real value comes from the potential to connect students with GPs and/or other valuable resources digitally, providing a clear audit trail of those engagements.
But how do universities facilitate this engagement without incurring additional costs? The ideal solution is one platform that enables universities to pick and choose from a catalogue of services that they might wish to trial or introduce, from messaging and self-help to artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics. The key thing is bringing the many services that fall under the umbrella of student support services together into a single consolidated platform, combined with the ability to switch elements on or off according to need.
Universities of the future are increasingly embracing digital… but the real value comes from integrating with wider student and public services, including health and social care organisations, especially GPs. Indeed, students have come to expect this. Only by embracing technology to improve existing ways of working will we see real improvements in how student mental health is managed in the future.