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"The Governor View" – Universities respond to rising tide of mental health and wellbeing issues

Student and staff mental health has been a key governance issue for a number of years, fuelled by the rising numbers of students reporting mental health problems and an increased emphasis on the need for institutions to support welfare and wellbeing.

Good mental health promotes student engagement and achievement, contributing to high progression rates and student satisfaction levels. Conversely, if students are not supported at times of crisis, the worst case scenario is the tragedy of student suicides, which can have a lingering impact on institutional reputation, whether deserved or not.

Governors will be acutely aware that the pandemic has exacerbated poor mental health across the sector. Almost two-thirds of students have experienced a decline in their mental health this academic year, Office for National Statistics figures show, with a more than a quarter reporting feeling lonely often or always. Students' life satisfaction during the pandemic remains far below the national adult average, according to the data published in March.

It is not only students who are struggling. Findings from a UCU survey, also in March, of 12,000 lecturers and professional services staff in universities and further education colleges, showed four in five had an increased workload and poorer mental health because of the pandemic. Black, Asian and minority ethnic women, LGBT+ and disabled staff were all more likely to report higher workloads and resulting stress.

According to governors who spoke to Advance HE, universities and their governing bodies are responding to this kind of evidence by ensuring that staff and student welfare is a ‘top three’ agenda item and that there is strategic view of the issue.

An audit committee chair at one Russell Group university described mental health as being “very high on the risk register”; a red or amber item depending on the particular circumstances.

“The mental health of staff and students is very much a focus of both the executive and the board and we spend a lot of time looking at it. Everyone is acutely aware that staff and students are stakeholders in universities and the collegiate impulse comes through; institutions are putting the resources in and trying to look after them, rather than the bottom line.”

A “link role” system at one London institution promotes this focus by allocating to each governor a particular area of the university strategy, on a two-year rotation. The link governor for wellbeing receives regular updates from the head of student support and can report back to the governing body on ongoing work.

“Not all universities do this and it works variably well depending on what governors are interested in – but it is a really good way for governors to gain a deep understanding of strategic areas and an understanding of operational matters,” said the governor.

At the same university, an internal audit of mental health and wellbeing services had been undertaken with the results expected shortly.

In universities where mental health may not be a standing item on the agenda, there are multiple avenues for the subject to be raised. One is via a student representative on a governing body, or through the Student Union.

An exercise one governor found useful for keeping abreast of students’ concerns on wellbeing were sessions arranged by the university, where governors participate in “mini-focus groups” with students.

Governors described a shift in thinking in recent years from student welfare as an add-on to people’s “real jobs”, to a recognition that the increasing number and complexity of cases that are now presenting demands a dedicated team of staff to provide more or less 24/7 provision 365 days a year. More resources are also being put into preventative wellbeing measures, harnessing new technology and data analytics to improve signposting and accessibility of peer mentoring and counselling services.

Recent examples cited by governors of flagship mental health initiatives included a partnership by local institutions to fund a centralised hub for delivering mental health support for students.

Governors are aware that different groups of staff or students can have different experiences. In some institutions, this has resulted in commissioning specialist services for BAME students, for instance.

One governor highlighted the challenge during the pandemic of picking up on mental health issues when contact with students is solely online. To address this, tutors were regularly checking in with students and ensuring they know that peer-to-peer support and online counselling slots are easily available.

All of the governors interviewed said a system was in place at their institution to gain consent from students, usually at registration, for the university to contact parents where there are concerns about the student’s mental health. The House of Lords is due to debate whether such opt-in systems should be mandatory. One governor mentioned that there was a grey area around at what stage in a student’s mental deterioration parents should be notified. Another made the point that the opt in system at their university referred to notifying a “trusted other”, rather than a parent, in recognition that many of its students did not fit into the model of “18-year-old school leavers”, or were care leavers/estranged.

Staff mental health concerns have also risen up the agenda during the pandemic and are likely to be aired by members of staff that sit on governing bodies.

A focus on staff wellbeing during the most recent lockdown at one institution in the south west, has meant greater flexibility and discretion with staff holidays, absences and performance reviews.

“We are aware of the stress that staff have been put under,” said one governor. “They’ve had to work harder than ever before; teaching online is more difficult than teaching face to face and there’s that lack of the support they would normally receive from just seeing each other every day.”

Discussions around student finance often touch on student welfare, given the strong link between money worries and deteriorating mental health. Rent rebates, agreed by many institutions, have played an important part in reducing anxiety, as have extra resources for hardship funds. The Westminster government announced in February that it would provide £50 million to universities to boost hardship funds.

One governor said that while the hardship fund injection was timely, universities were spending more and more of their income on providing 24-hour provision for mental health, as well as funding expanding preventative measures.

“I think the Office for Students could provide more resources to pump prime initiatives and evaluate what works,” she said. “The OfS’s role can very much stimulate change and it should take a lead. That would be more effective than government finger wagging around mental health. This is a big social issue – it’s in schools, it’s in workplaces, it is everywhere around us.”

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