Students require an emergency package of mental health measures to support them at university during the coronavirus pandemic, Labour shadow ministers have told the government.
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, the shadow mental health minister, and Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said government should bring forth an “emergency package of measures that will support the mental health of students, particularly those who are self-isolating”.
Both frontbenchers said government should work with universities, students’ unions and local NHS and mental health partners to better target support and ensure “existing services are genuinely accessible”.
Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow universities minister Emma Hardy today hosted a virtual town hall event for students and parents.
One third-year student at the University of Liverpool, named Ben, told Sir Keir and Ms Hardy “over the last few weeks” he had received “many emails” from his institution that claimed “[the University of Liverpool is] the best university in the world for online teaching”, but had not clearly signposted students towards mental health support services.
The student said “[mental health support] should be front and centre” of university correspondences as students return to campus.
“You think the priority [at your university] isn’t there on the wellbeing?” Sir Keir asked. “Not from what I’ve seen,” the student responded.
University of Liverpool spokesperson responded: ‘The wellbeing and mental health of our students remains an absolute priority and we offer a range of services and support which is carefully shaped based on student feedback.
“Mental health has been a key theme throughout the activities we have put in place to welcome students to the University this week. We are particularly conscious that it is more difficult for students to connect with each other this year and so many of our online welcome activities were specifically designed to support students to make new friends safely. This is being complemented by an extended activity programme throughout the year.
“Other measures include the introduction of a new Foundation Week which will support all our students, who we know have faced considerable disruption to their studies this year, to re-engage with academic life and get prepared for the new semester through a programme of academic skill development activities.”
The challenges in returning to universities were predictable and predicted, and it was an act of shocking complacency for the government to fail to ensure that students would all get the support they need
– Kate Green, shadow education secretary
Other students were more positive about their experiences. Sophie, a first-year journalism student at the University of Leeds, told Sir Keir she was self-isolating at her halls of residence after testing positive for Covid-19. She said her university had been “very proactive” and kept in contact with her via “calls and emails” during her period of self-isolation.
Eugene, a first-year student at the University of Glasgow, said his university had “a commendable response” to the mental health challenge, including offering those self-isolating a one-month rent rebate and a £50-a-week food allowance. Eugene, who is self-isolating with his parents in Fife after developing coronavirus symptoms on a weekend visit, said students self-isolating in his halls had received “support phone calls” from the university.
“But I think, in a way, it’s too little, too late; these measures – as commendable as they are – didn’t come in until there was quite a large outcry from students and parents, including students writing articles in newspapers and extensive media coverage. I believe that the government and universities should have been a step ahead,” Eugene added.
One student at the University of Leeds told the Labour leader that the on-campus coronavirus testing facility had been so busy that some students had been forced to walk three hours to another testing facility.
Labour said student mental health services were “inadequate” before the pandemic hit. The number of students reporting a mental health condition has risen sharply in recent years.
In 2018/19 82,000 students said they had a mental health condition, two and a half times as high as in 2014/15. Data obtained last year by Sir Norman Lamb revealed that students at some universities were waiting more than 80 days to receive counselling via a university student support service.
Ms Green said last night: “Students across the country are in an extremely difficult position, and many are now self-isolating with a group of people who are practically strangers.
“The challenges in returning to universities were predictable and predicted, and it was an act of shocking complacency for the government to fail to ensure that students would all get the support they need.
“Gavin Williamson must end his serial incompetence and urgently outline his plans to support the mental health of young people.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of The Office for Students, said it is “more important than ever that students can access good mental health support to help them settle in, particularly where they are being asked to self isolate”.
She added: “The OfS is funding the Student Space service to support student mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic. Where students need to go into insolation, universities have to be clear about how courses will continue to operate in these circumstances and what welfare, resources and support are available.
“Universities should provide information about how testing can be accessed where it is expected by the health authorities and ensure that such students can access food and other essential provisions. We will be following up with individual universities and colleges where we have concerns about the arrangements they are making for teaching and academic support.”