For all of us, ‘life admin’ can now be 24-7. We can do our grocery shop at midnight and sort out our banking at 6am on Sunday. Many of our students have not lived in a world where ‘services’ they need in life are not always ‘on’. Higher education is not a 9-5 business. Learners can be engaged in work towards their qualification at all hours of the day. Indeed, many of our students may be on placement, such as in the NHS, meaning their opportunities to use support services will often not correspond with traditional office hours.
All of us, and perhaps especially younger people, are more mental health aware today than ever. There is also a vocal student voice focus on mental health in the needs our students express to us.
Poor mental health has impacts both on our own lives, and the lives of those around us. For our students it can affect academic performance, and the capacity or desire to remain in HE. We know that mental health conditions are mostly likely to emerge before the age of 24.
Developed as a partnership between the University of Derby, King’s College London, Aston University, Student Minds and Advance HE, and funded by the Office for Students via a Challenge Competition, the Education for Mental Health Toolkit has been created to provide evidence informed guidance on the ways in which curriculum can support both wellbeing and learning.
Besides age there are range of other factors which place students at additional risk of experiencing poorer mental health, such as pressures from life changes like moving where you live, money, and academic pressures. There is a strong argument that the isolation and disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated a trend which many of us have observed in recent years: students are presenting to their universities with mental health issues in greater numbers; they present with greater complexity; and increasingly often in states of advanced crisis and risk.
The question how to balance these competing pressures and issues. How do we ensure we continue to adapt to meet the changing needs our students? Where do the boundaries lie?
Expectation change and the opportunities created by technology mean it is timely to ask about the limits of what we provide during traditional office hours; and what should be available beyond this time.
Change must be balanced against appropriate boundaries for services; and maintaining focus on enabling and supporting academic achievement, not covering deficits in out of hours statutory health care or other external provision.
There are innovative ways we can respond. At Cardiff University we have taken a series of actions which have made information and support more accessible to our students. Like many in the sector, we have worked with NHS and private sector partners to provision online safe spaces to talk and new resources. We have invested in a student services change programme which has delivered a 24/7 enquiry portal online and a 24/7 chatbot to support this, and in-person opening hours which align with our teaching hours. Front line enquiries can be raised in person and on the phone before and after all teaching has ended during term time, including booking appointments with student support professional staff.
However, for all of us there is work to do to better explain what we do and why. We need to work together to enhance how the sector explains what we are offering, and why it is offered. For me, there are three reasons why we need to keep to clear boundaries; we should focus out of hours availability on practical information and the ability to forward plan, such as booking appointments.
Firstly, it is not in our student’s interest that we go further and adopt the role of an emergency health provider. An out of hours situation that requires a blue light response, should rightly be dealt with via the emergency services. There is a role for HE providers to join up their post-incident response to the individual affected. This might be through working in partnership, or even data sharing, with the NHS after an incident. But the out of hours response should rightly lie with the emergency services.
Secondly, student support services are not equipped to support clinical health needs out of hours. Education providers do not supply complex treatments for physical illness. Equally, we are not equipped to respond to complex mental ill health, and especially when situations emerge that require an urgent response out of hours.
Finally, student support professional staff across the sector are not purposed, resourced or trained to offer all student services 24/7. Even if the resource question was addressed, in the growing number of cases where risk is greatest we are reliant on the NHS and other partners to work with us to support the student concerned and these services are not available to us out of traditional business hours.
Our universities have risen to the challenge of offering diverse and innovative support to help students achieve during a pandemic. We should be rightly proud of the success in making support more accessible and inclusive that ever. Funding from government across the UK nations has helped the sector to respond to changes in demand and expectation and encouraged innovation. Making student services accessible to a point that is detrimental to quality and staff wellbeing, and deviates from the purpose of our work is not in anyone’s interests.
Ben Lewis is Director of Student Life at Cardiff University, Chair of AMOSSHE Wales, and Europe Director of the International Association of Student Affairs and Services.
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