Do more on mental health or risk regulation, UUK president warns vice-chancellors

Prof Steve West told vice-chancellors that government patience “may be running short” on student mental health

Universities must do more to tackle poor mental health within their student community and demonstrate progress to ministers “or a heavy-handed, regulatory approach beckons”, the president of Universities UK has warned.

UUK president Prof Steve West told vice-chancellors that government patience “may be running short” and urged them to demonstrate collective leadership on the issue, or risk the watchdog for universities in England, the Office for Students, introducing regulation.

Prof West, also the vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and chair of the Mental Health in Higher Education group, spoke at the UUK Mental Health conference 2021 on 4 November, this year hosted online.

Prof West said surveys had demonstrated the scale and urgency of the mental health crisis. 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 have experienced issues with eating or an eating disorder in the last year – a 30% increase on the figure recorded four years ago.

He paid tribute to the work of charity Student Minds to develop the University Mental Health Charter, which would, he said, bring “alignment” to the sector’s approach. Forty universities have adopted the findings of the charter.

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”.

Just as we have stepped up to the challenge, I call on government to do the same, to be less reactive and more courageous and strategic and more collaborative
– Prof Steve West, Universities UK

The charter gave the sector “strong foundations”, Prof West said, adding: “But we must avoid complacency, there is significant work still to be done – or a heavy-handed, regulatory approach beckons.”

Prof West continued: “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, the OfS. I think this would be a huge mistake and would not deliver sustained improvements or learning!”

The UUK president told vice-chancellors he was working hard to lobby the government. “Just as we have stepped up to the challenge, I call on government to do the same, to be less reactive and more courageous and strategic and more collaborative,” he told delegates. “Where, for example, is the overarching cross-governmental approach to 0-25yrs? Where is the sustained collaboration between education and health on young adult mental health?”

The speech also addressed staff mental health. Prof West said universities had for too long focused only on students, “driven by attention from government and the OfS”. He encouraged universities to work with trade unions “to see this as a non-adversarial space”. The sector’s largest trade union, the University and College Union (UCU), is currently balloting members at 146 higher education institutions on pay, working conditions, inequalities and workloads. More than half of employees at UK universities are showing signs of probable depression, according a recent survey by the charity Education Support.

“Workplace mental health and wellbeing is cultural as well as structural – it’s about purpose as well as pay and pensions and workloads,” the UUK president said, adding: “We should not forget that under the fractured relations between sector leaders and trades unions, and not underestimating the challenge of staff mental health, surveys consistently suggest that this is a great sector to work within, transformative, changing lives and life-changing.”

A survey of more than 40,000 postgraduate researchers found that university wellbeing support during the pandemic only met the needs of six in 10, a figure Advance HE described as “concerning”.

Read more: Don’t hesitate to share student data in an emergency, ICO tells universities

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