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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Clearly defined roles and relationships

Within university discourse, it is often claimed that academics have ‘pastoral’ roles in relation to students. However, academics and students express confusion at exactly what the word ‘pastoral’ means in this context (1): it has no fixed meaning and can be interpreted in widely different ways.

Clear delineation of roles

Within university discourse, it is often claimed that academics have ‘pastoral’ roles in relation to students. However, academics and students express confusion at exactly what the word ‘pastoral’ means in this context (1): it has no fixed meaning and can be interpreted in widely different ways. Research has shown that academic staff are often unsure of the boundaries of their role and, as a result, are unable to clearly communicate them to students (1, 2). This creates potential risk for staff, students and their university.

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The students in our co-creation panel highlighted their own uncertainty about the relationships they could expect to have with academic staff and a need to understand the boundaries of the relationship. Prior to university, students have never experienced a relationship that mirrors that of students to lecturer or tutor. Without clear explanation, there is no reason why students would understand how this relationship could or should work. In addition, variations in boundaries and relationships with different academics can create confusion and uncertainty. This uncertainty led some students, in our research, to feel uncomfortable and anxious and, as a result, less likely to approach academics for support. Academic staff also report the converse effect of this uncertainty:  some students also assume academics can provide them with skilled support beyond their actual capacities, for example with mental health problems (3).

At the most extreme end, when students are uncertain about the nature of the relationship and the boundaries of the role, it can lead to increased risk to students, staff and universities, either because students do not approach staff when they require support or because they seek inappropriate support for mental illness or crisis responses from academics (1). This can have negative consequences for staff and student wellbeing (4). For the safety and wellbeing of staff and students (4), it is important to ensure academics do not find themselves in ill-defined quasi-counselling roles for which they are not equipped, and which would be inappropriate even for those who are qualified (5, 6).

Students reported a desire for clear guidance on the nature of the relationship between students and academics. This desire called for specific information on questions such as:

  • How can I contact my lecturers?
  • How often can I contact them?
  • When should I contact them?
  • What can I talk to them about?

This confusion on both sides exists across the sector at a structural level. It must, therefore, be dealt with systematically (7). Universities can help at an institutional level by providing clearer definitions of these roles and communicating this to academic colleagues via staff development and to students.

There may be a need for adaptation within disciplines, but key principles can be established around the nature of the relationship and what staff can and cannot do. These principles should help individuals and teams to understand their roles and responsibilities and manage expectations on both staff and student sides. This should be accompanied by information and training in the available appropriate support for students and guidance on effective signposting.

Academics will then be better prepared and empowered to communicate and maintain the boundaries of their role. Good practice suggests that academic staff then communicate these boundaries at the beginning of the academic year and reiterate them during the year, so students have multiple opportunities to absorb and understand them.

Key lessons

  • There is a lack of clarity about the relationship between academic staff and students, where the boundaries lie and how they can be communicated and maintained.
  • Students cannot be expected to accurately work out and understand these relationships without explicit, clear guidance.
  • These relationships would benefit from being defined at a university level and communicated to staff via development and training.
  • Academic staff can then communicate these boundaries at the beginning of each year and throughout the year.

Top tips

  • The definition of these relationships may benefit from co-creation between academics, students, learning and teaching staff, student services staff and university leaders.
  • For the definition of relationships to work, they need to move beyond abstract language and deal in specifics.
  • To maintain boundaries, academic staff must be empowered with the resources and skills to signpost students supportively and effectively.
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  1. Hughes G, Panjwani M, Tulcidas P, Byrom N. Student mental health: The role and responsibilities of academics. Oxford: Student Minds. 2018.
  2. Lochtie D, McIntosh E, Stork A, Walker B. Effective personal tutoring in higher education. Critical Publishing; 2018 Oct 8.
  3. Wong B, Chiu YL. Let me entertain you: The ambivalent role of university lecturers as educators and performers. Educational Review. 2019 Mar 4;71(2):218-33.
  4. Kinman G. Doing more with less? Work and wellbeing in academics. Somatechnics. 2014 Sep;4(2):219-35.
  5. Kinman G, Wray S. Higher stress: A survey of stress and well-being among staff in higher education. London, UK: University and College Union. 2013 Nov 22.
  6. Hughes GJ, Byrom NC. Managing student mental health: The challenges faced by academics on professional healthcare courses. Journal of advanced nursing. 2019 Jul;75(7):1539-48. Available from: doi: 
  7. Hughes G., Bowers-Brown T. (2021) Student Services, Personal Tutors, and Student Mental Health: A Case Study. In: Padró FF, Kek M, Huijser H., editors. Student Support Services. University Development and Administration. Singapore: Springer. Available from: doi: