BME attainment: why universities must do more than ‘mind the gap’

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June 2018 saw the launch of a joint initiative between Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) to bolster university attainment and improve the university experience of black and minority ethnic (BME) students in the UK. Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of West England, Bristol, says his institution is running initiatives that will create a more inclusive and supportive environment.

All universities aim to do their very best for their students.

Many have a version of this ambition as a mission statement, or say it is at the core of what they do. Despite this widespread commitment, the facts suggest that more needs to be done to enable students from all backgrounds to get good grades and move into well paid, fulfilling employment after graduating.

This is particularly the case where black and minority ethnic students are concerned: attainment gaps of more than 20% are common between minority students and other groups.

As I recently told a group of students and university representatives exploring the issue in Bristol, this is an area where the sector is doing ‘stuff’ without cutting through in a way that delivers results. This is seen in the individual student stories, and through the data that institutions collect.

A long-standing challenge

Listening to those who attended the evidence gathering session in Bristol – [one of five organised by UUK and the NUS] to look at how to tackle this issue – it’s clear that more needs to be done.

We know that BME students experience greater financial challenges at university than other groups. We are also aware that university leadership teams are not representative of the student body and that some curriculums do not reflect minority groups’ experiences. These areas need to be prioritised and addressed if the attainment gap is to be tackled.

It was heartening, therefore, to hear the ideas put forward at the session at UWE Bristol. Some of these ideas were practical, covering areas like training for staff and those who study with us. Others were cultural, playing into conversations about how organisations can set the standard for what is acceptable, and challenge language and behaviour that doesn’t reach this bar.

Crucially, there’s a question over leadership, and recognition that addressing this challenge is integral to creating a fairer, more prosperous society. Without that commitment from the top, those mission statements will seem empty.

Hope for the future

Some positive work is already happening at UWE Bristol to address these issues, including our successful Equity programme, which provides BME students with leadership development, access to role models, and opportunities to network with leading employers. Those who have participated in the programme have told us it made a huge difference, and we believe that Equity has created a blueprint that others could follow.

We are also taking significant steps towards creating a more inclusive and supportive environment, through initiatives that aim to create a more open, tolerant and supportive culture across the whole university.

With one in four students at UWE Bristol coming from ethnic minority backgrounds, we are proud that the university’s student population reflects the communities in which it is based. We are absolutely determined to ensure that students from all backgrounds and all parts of our community can succeed by studying with us.

The evidence gathered from the UUK-NUS sessions will be crucial for understanding why this issue persists in universities today, and provides an opportunity for us to tackle it together. The case for reducing the attainment gap for BME students is undeniable: by working with students, staff and other universities, I’m confident we can deliver the change that needs to happen.

This blog first appeared on the Universities UK website on 13 November 2018.

Supporting students’ mental health is a team effort

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Hundreds of thousands of young people start new chapters in their lives when they arrive at university this week.

This is an important time of great change for them, with most leaving home, family, friends and social networks behind to come to university. Universities have a crucial role in making the time they spend with us fulfilling and rewarding.

Given the numbers of students who come to university, it should not be surprising to anyone that demand for support for mental health conditions is increasing.

This is generating increased public attention and is the backdrop against which Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has challenged the sector to do more to address the issue. The launch of a mental health charter to improve standards of support is part of the government’s response to this.

This is welcome, because it’s an issue that universities need to respond to. But it is also not something that universities or any part of the system that has contact with students can address alone.

Supporting students

Looking at what’s happening at universities vividly illustrates the extent of the activity taking place across the country.  More than 200 initiatives are on offer at UWE Bristol alone. This ranges from providing information to students when they first arrive, to creating places for them to access support and shaping a supportive culture that gives them the confidence to raise issues with others. We are also investing in new ways to use data to better understand how students engage in life on campus.

One of the most pressing issues this work has highlighted is the need to bring organisations together to provide a network of support for undergraduates.  In many cases, when students leave home they will also be leaving therapeutic support networks that they are used to – from young people’s mental health services to a new GP.

This places universities like ours in a position of providing support and direction to students, often without a full understanding of their history. It’s a major challenge, and we need to work with the NHS and partners to bridge these gaps.

Listening to students

In the face of this complexity, it is inspiring to hear the views of students themselves, who are best able to convey an understanding of what is needed. Those who have joined discussions with us support the improvements we are making and have been clear about the issues they face.

They have ambitions, but are disproportionately affected by the cost of housing, the jobs market, the environment and our future in Europe. Many are understandably unhappy at being termed ‘snowflakes’ when they speak about their concerns.

Given these changing pressures, it is clear that the way we support their mental health and wellbeing must adapt change too and that is what many universities are looking to deliver.

As we welcome thousands of new students leaving home for the first time, in scenes that will be replicated across the country, we appreciate that their mental health will be seen as everyone’s responsibility.

Tackling an issue as complex will not be achieved by a single measure or statement. It must be seen a team effort.  If we’re able to work together and listen to students, we stand a better chance of success.

This blog first appeared on the Huffington Post website on 21 September 2018.

How universities can support student mental health and wellbeing

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Mental health and wellbeing has shot to prominence recently as factors combine to place it on the national agenda.

Organisations like the Huffington Post have brilliantly campaigned to improve understanding around the issue. The Prime Minister has called for barriers to employment for people with mental ill health to be removed. And the issue of male suicide became a national talking point following the focus it received on a popular TV programme.

Whilst this is welcome in raising awareness and helping to change the debate, it’s worth recognising that this attention is not happening in a vacuum. That it’s happening at all is a reflection of what millions of readers, viewers and voters experience in their every-day lives.

Research suggests that around one in four people report a mental health problem each year. With more than 2m students attending university each year, institutions like my own at UWE Bristol are at the forefront of efforts to address this issue.

Recent studies reveal there has been a fivefold increase in the number of students disclosing mental health problems over the last 10 years. This is consistent with our university’s experience over that period of time.

The reasons for this increase are multi-layered and – to those who are affected – deeply personal and complex. Changing attitudes towards mental health, financial pressures, a tough jobs market and the impact of social media are factors that previous generations did not have to contend with in the same way when they went to university.

Whatever people’s views on this issue may be – and there are many – mental health and wellbeing can’t be ignored any more.

Applying a ‘big’ solution or headline-grabbing initiative is an understandable response – particularly in an environment which has become fixated on responses to ‘problems’, rather than how to prevent them from happening in the first place. I strongly believe that more needs to be done to look at the day-to-day aspects of university life, which could have a bigger impact on more people’s lives over time.

This is why I am determined to put the mental health and wellbeing of our students and staff at the heart of everything our university does. The measures we are looking at are shaped by a national discussion with the Government and bodies like Universities UK, Students’ Unions and the charity Student Minds. They range from new facilities to relax and seek support and advice, to how we structure our curriculums and use of technology and data to understand our students’ experience with us.

At the heart of this is a desire to break down the barriers to discussing mental health and encourage everyone to understand that it’s ok to admit when you’re not ‘ok’. By making mental health part of everyday language, we can create a culture that is more supportive and enables students to be successful.

Universities are not alone in facing this challenge and our response can only be successful by working with other organisations who deal with this every day. Recently, I spoke alongside Universities UK about how we are finding new ways in Bristol to work with education providers, the NHS, voluntary organisations and employers to support students when they need it, in ways that work for them.

This touches on an important pieces of feedback I’ve heard from families whose children have been affected by mental ill health as students. Each story highlights to me that more needs to be done to help people in times of stress and difficulty.

At the same time, we must shift our focus from just supporting people when they hit difficulty to providing measures that prevents this from happening in the first place. This means teaching people resilience and giving them the emotional and physical tools they need to look after their mental health. It requires a more holistic and understanding approach, which runs through all facets of what we do.

It may not be what script and speech writers are looking for, but our responsibility to students and their families demands new and different approaches are found. We all have a role to play in this.

Working with universities and everyone who works and studies here, I am determined that we find ways to do that.

A version of this blog post first appeared on Bristol 247 on 18 May.

Mental Wealth First

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This week I am announcing ‘Mental Wealth First’: UWE Bristol’s Commitment to put Mental Health and Wellbeing first, for both students and staff. This means adopting the whole university approach of the Universities UK Step Change Framework to ensure we have the right support, systems, training and partnerships in place for optimum mental health and wellbeing. Wellbeing is the key addition here, as we want to create a healthy, productive environment where everyone has what they need to thrive and grow.

What triggered this work was firstly a realisation that, as universities, we have a group of individuals, 18-24 year olds who are going through massive transitions –from home to university and then onto employment. A cohort vulnerable to a range of mental ill-health issues, from anxiety and depression to loneliness, stress about exams, peer pressure or identity issues. The second thing is that data shows that all of us have a continuum of mental health where one in four will experience mental ill-health at some point during our lives.

We are already seeing increasing demands on the NHS in this area. And the demands within universities will continue to increase with people accessing services when they are in crisis with mental ill-health if we don’t rethink our approach. In fact, universities have been reporting a threefold increase in the demand for counselling services since 2007.

Universities should be proud of the work they are already doing to support young people with their mental health and wellbeing needs.

At UWE Bristol, we offer a range of services to support students in ways that suit them individually. For example, the Wellbeing service offers an initial 90 minute Therapeutic Consultation for students seeking support, as well as a daily drop-in service. We have also this term introduced an online platform called Kooth Student, which provides online out of hours access to professional online counsellors, live moderated forums and self-help materials and allows students to seek help anonymously.

We also focus on the transition periods where we know anxiety is often at its greatest for students, such as joining the university, and low times like returning after Christmas and assessment times. Students are encouraged and facilitated to make friends, look after each other, get involved, made aware of the support available and, in the case of our Feelgood February, persuaded to be active.

Throughout the student journey, the University, partnering with the Student Union has run a number of workshops for staff and students. The main aim of the student workshops has been to empower students, improving their emotional resilience, self-belief and esteem and confidence. From the New Year, the SU will operate a new service called Nightline, a phone-based student- to-student support service.

However, we know there is more to be done to address this growing issue. We are one of three universities nationally (alongside Cardiff and York) that will be piloting the Universities UK Step Change Framework. This means auditing our current activity across the university, including our leadership, the data we use, what we provide for staff, our initiatives around prevention and early intervention, how we arrange support particularly around key transition periods and our partnerships.

We will be consulting with staff, students and partners, including Universities UK and leading student mental health charity, Students Minds UK, to identify what works, where there are gaps and what people need in the future. We will then develop our Strategy and five-year Action Plan to begin to implement this new whole university approach.

Our work will be used to help shape the future approach to mental health and wellbeing in universities across the country.

This is not a short term fix but a long term cultural change that we believe will help us create the best environment for people to thrive, getting the most out of their time at university and preparing them for later life.

Find out more about our Mental Wealth First commitment here:

Taking a lead on Brexit

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(An extract from a speech given to the AUA Autumn Conference, Cardiff Nov. 23)


Things considered universities are not in bad shape.  This is compared to 2011 when HEFCE was reporting 1 in 5 of universities in deficit and half below the recommended 3% surplus.

Today the average surplus is 5.2% of income and last year only 10 universities reported deficits.

In parallel Higher Education has been a UK success story. Countries have been investing and skilling up their young people. In 2016 across OECD countries 43% of 25-34 year olds had some tertiary education.  In the US 48%. In Japan some 60%. In the UK 52%. The UK has had to keep up and compete.

Two and half times more young people are now engaged in HE relative to 20 years ago, benefitting them enormously with better income, health and satisfaction prospects never mind additional tax revenue to the treasury.

Importantly with this expansion has come greater social mobility with 9,000 more students in the last 7 years from low participating neighbourhoods being accepted.

This been replicated in international interest from most parts of the world in UK HE. According to HESA, a 21% increase from the EU and the US, about 100% from China and the Middle East between 2006/07 and 2015/16.

However we know we have to meet some future demands. The notable one of being Brexit which has created uncertainty in student fee and research income, increasing the cost of borrowing and unsettling our EU staff.

We should deal with uncertainty head on. Not sit and watch what is happening in terms of Brexit but tackle its unintended consequences and assist UK productivity and growth.

Universities I believe must be at the forefront of Brexit. Not just in improving the UK’s good research and innovation links with Europe, maintaining great programmes like Erasmus, but if the upside for leaving Europe is about the opening up of the UK economy to the world then we should build on one of the UK’s biggest assets and exports, persuading those from overseas that the UK is tolerant and welcoming.

This means continuing to strengthen our offer to the UK economy and overseas by investing in the UK benchmark in academic quality and approach. This means we enable even greater access to HE, success and employment progression for all students. We embrace the wave of consumerism to ensure students’ rights are protected. We improve on our academic quality and use the digital revolution to enhance the quality of the academic experience. And fourthly we deliver value for money for students by reducing ongoing costs and making sure as much is invested in the student experience as we can.

In fact these are The Office for Students’ new draft objectives.

I am optimistic about the future of higher education and its contribution to the nation. This is based on future demand from both students and employers. We will need to support the next demographic upturn from 2021 onwards with the number of 18-20 year olds expected to rise by 200,000 by 2030. And there will be careers for them. Employers have been saying their recruitment priority is young people with higher skills underlined by last year’s CBI Survey where 80% of business were forecasting vacancies in higher skills, twice that of intermediate skills and more than 10 times that of lower skill vacancies.

But I have other reasons too. Universities have shown they have resilience and can adapt. We have shown that we can improve on the inherent quality of what we provide.

HE can be the change and take a lead on many of the things that have evaded us as a nation for too long – like stubborn youth unemployment with more than 10% of 16-24 year olds out of work or poor educational progression that leads to many other young people not reaching their full potential.

It is imperative that UK HE thrives. Not only does the UK economy rely on it but so does the future livelihoods of many young people whose global outlook, resilience, adaptability and futures depend on having something behind them to meet the future challenges.

Mental Health for Everyone

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Every higher education institution clearly strives to be a place where people can flourish. More than 2.2 million students and over 400,000 staff are engaged in higher education in the UK. However on mental health universities are clearly facing an increasing challenge. Nationally we know around 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and the average age of the first onset of major mental disorders is between 17 to 25 years, the age of many undergraduate students.

Universities have been reporting a greater increase in students declaring a mental health issue and a threefold increase in the demand for counselling services since 2007.
More concerning is a high level of student suicide – with the Office of National Statistics stating the number of student suicides increased from 100 in 2013 to 130 in 2014, the highest since 2007. And the problem that many of these students aren’t known to the student services departments beforehand.

So what can we do about this?

This week I report on the interim findings of the work we have been doing at UniversitiesUK in relation to the development of a Mental Health Framework. The research is due for release later this summer. It builds on UUK’s 2015 Student Mental Wellbeing in HE: Good Practice Guide, as well as a variety of other reports and research that are available.

The case for investment by universities in this area is compelling. The most important reason is of course valuing people – ensuring we support our students, help them thrive, help them manage any potential stigma attached to mental health and most importantly of all ensuring we don’t leave any gaps or leave people behind in the shadows by them not accessing the services often readily available to them.

So what are our interim recommendations?

Time has come for clear leadership. To me this is an obvious area where a Vice-chancellor can pull together areas in the University, and the external bodies we work with. It also calls for leadership at all levels with regards to the evaluation, prioritisation, partnership and resourcing to embed mental health across organisations. Mental health needs to be included in strategy development in planning rounds – set shared and ambitious goals. There are universities like UCLan and York who have done this. The strategy should align policies, procedures and coordinate resources and increase communication across departments.

We need to use more evidence and robust evaluation to find and address gaps in provision. This means monitoring year on year mental health of the population. It means improving current practices by seeking feedback and measuring the quality of services. It means identifying, evaluating, and disseminating promising mental health initiatives and strategies.

We need to change the culture. Engage every department and team of the university in a conversation that reduces stigma and encourages disclosure and appropriate help seeking. Make sure we provide a broad array of information and training for students and staff to increase awareness and compassion. We can create messages to promote ways people can support their own mental health or the health of those they care about, thus, increase the mental health literacy and disclosure.

We need to recognise we all have mental health and engage with determinants of mental health across all aspects of university life. We should give students and staff tools for self-care and stress recovery. Most importantly we should Invest in prevention and early intervention. Ensure that we gain early awareness in the student journey and take up.The narrative we use needs to be much less dominated by mental “illness” and “risk” which, in turn, tends to fuel service-led provision and deficit models, in which only those students who present with difficulty receive support – this is not the right solution to deal with the demand we are facing and the needs of our students and staff. It also serves to reinforce the stigma that we must reduce.

Instead, we all need to drive forward a narrative built around mental “health” in which the HE sector properly recognises mental strength, resilience and confidence as key graduate attributes. After all how many of us has woken up in the middle of the night thinking of something that they have do that might be difficult the next day. An institution’s mainstream curriculum and co-curriculum activity can have apart to play here. For example, through assessment strategies and classroom pedagogy that enhances a sense of engagement and belonging, with strong attendance, which is fundamental to combating isolation, stress and distress.

In terms of supporting the unwell our student services play a vital role and we can take whole population approaches to mental health promotion and self-care with clear messages on distress and support. We can align work on reducing stigma and disclosure with clear signposting, appropriate staff training and peer-to-peer initiatives and support service configuration. There will be a need to configure services for different types of interventions – technology, drop-in, triage systems, telephone, after hours, peer-to-peer. As well as how we reduce the risk of crisis/ suicide situations.

Finally, working partnerships will be key not just between departments, and areas like the student union and sports, but the broader HE sector, the NHS, 3rd sector & charities, schools and graduate employers as well as the town or city, communities and families.

At UWE Bristol, we’ve recognised how important these partnerships and the ‘whole journey approach’ are, linking up with Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust at an academic and practitioner level, the city councils and charities. We have recognised how important it is that the guidelines and provision we develop for the co-commissioning of services and approaches, should be integrated with feeder schools and colleges, to enhance the preparedness as well as fuel the aspiration of prospective entrants to higher education. Universities are part of a much broader eco-system. To really do the best by our students it is critical that we are as joined up as possible in the approach we take, in order to really maximise the impact we can have for our students.

The note I would like to end on is an important one. Here I believe is the real opportunity to look at this not as a problem of the few but something that impacts many. Where we can look to prevent rather than react to a crisis. And most significantly of all see this as an opportunity to set young people up well for later life. Good mental health should be a strong graduate attribute. This is about shaping a resilient and healthy society for the future – the significance across our public services and the way we live cannot therefore be overstated.

We can and we should adopt NEWS

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Spreading Innovation to Save Lives

Our NHS and social care system are one of the country’s greatest assets. They are a fantastic gift that we give to each other and one that is envied across the globe. However, the world is changing and the need for us to continue to review, reset and reinvent our health and social care system has never been greater. The demands we are placing on it are huge and it is beginning to fail. Whilst this is, in part, a reflection of us all living longer and increased potential through new technologies and new drugs to diagnose and treat more and more conditions and diseases, we have to face up to the challenges that this brings. More people are accessing services and there is often greater demand than we are currently able to meet.

The creation of Academic Health Science Networks by NHS England back in 2013 was an attempt to create partnerships to help us to better collaborate, innovate, disseminate and spread learning and best practice. It was done at a critical time as much of the infrastructure that had formerly been in place to facilitate this kind of learning and sharing had been dismantled in successive reorganisations. The uncomfortable truth was that the system had become fragmented, staff and expertise had been lost, resulting in us facing significant financial, social and staffing challenges.

Recent media reports have highlighted yet again just how fragile our health and social care eco-system is. It is difficult to ignore the reports when so many dedicated staff who have committed their whole lives to the service are signaling we have a problem. For those of us in the system it is heart-breaking to watch. We are working hard yet no matter how hard we try we are not gaining enough ground.

This is made worse when you listen to reports that seek to apportion blame in one direction or another. We are one NHS. The problems we face are not just about the funding – it is also about the structures, the interfaces, the mechanisms for collaboration, and the relationship between the government, the professionals and importantly the citizens. We all have a stake in this and it is important that we seek a collective solution to create the integrated and joined-up services that are required 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

So how can we help, how can we get beyond the current ‘blame, denial and shouting’ culture that is so evident at the moment? How do we come together to really create solutions that are sustainable, affordable and acceptable to all the stakeholders? One of the answers is to look at what currently works. Where have we cracked some of this and can learn and spread this knowledge?

The West of England Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) is one of 15 AHSNs across England that has been innovating and spreading best practice. Each AHSN will have examples of best practice and innovation that have improved services locally. Our challenge now is spreading these beyond our local geography and partnerships.

Recently I read with sadness and frustration reports of critically ill patients dying on trolleys in over-crowded Emergency Departments. Sadly this is not new. But there are things we can, and have done, that is reducing the risks and has even eliminated the problem in some of our hospitals. I want to shout about the National Early Warning Score (NEWS), which the West of England AHSN is supporting all our healthcare providers in the region to adopt and spread. I urge our political and clinical leaders to stop arguing and blaming each other, and to wake up and work with us to spread this approach to every Emergency Department, every Ambulance Service, and every Community and Primary Care setting across the country. No more ‘lost’ critically ill patients need to die on trolleys for lack of basic care. In the Emergency Departments in the West of England we now use NEWS alongside an Emergency Department safety checklist which should be universally adopted too. This means care can be monitored across every handover of care throughout the system. This will ensure time is not wasted, and instead we are saving lives.


As published on the WEAHSN website, 17/01/17.

The impact of social media on the mental health of students

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Steve West recently gave this presentation to MPs and Peers

The use of social media is increasingly pervasive in the UK and across the globe, particularly in the lives of our students. At present, Facebook has the highest number of users – 32m in the UK, with 1bn people across the world using Facebook in a single day.

Clearly social media brings a number of benefits to its users – enabling connections to be maintained or new networks to be built that would not have otherwise been possible. Social media can also help boost young people’s self-confidence and social skills.

At UWE Bristol, like many other universities, we use social media to help support recruitment and transition to university – sharing information and enabling students to build connections with their peers before they arrive. It is also a great tool in facilitating communications, supporting teaching, and of course it provides a valuable means of maintaining alumni networks.

However, research and user experiences are exposing a highly negative side to social media – in particular the link between social media and challenges to mental health and well-being. With 18-19 year olds spending an average of 2.55 hours a day on social networking sites, this is clearly a major concern.

We already know that mental health is a very important challenge facing the health and education sectors, with one in four people experiencing a mental health problem in any one year. We also know that there are particular circumstances that students face that put them at increased risk in relation to mental health. This is something we have been striving to address at UWE Bristol, introducing modes of delivery for our well-being service that provide an improved outcome for users and also allow us to cope with the increased demand that we have seen across the sector.

There are a number of reasons for this increase in referrals and applications for well-being support, which has been in the region of 50% over the past 5 years. One potential factor we cannot ignore is the use of social media.

Indeed, there is a growing body of research exploring the links between social media and mental health covering a number of areas, including bullying, harassment, self-esteem, negative body image and normalising self-harm.

At UWE Bristol, researchers from our world-leading Centre for Appearance Research have carried out a number of studies in this area, focusing in particular on social comparison theory – where people compare themselves to others to know where they stand. One example, includes investigating the causal effect of Facebook on women’s mood and body image, compared to viewing a body-neutral site. The study found that viewing Facebook had a more negative impact on mood, and for those who had a pre-existing tendency to make more appearance comparisons, ‘spending time on Facebook led to a greater desire to change their face, hair and skin-related features’. Facebook provides a huge range of lifestyle and image social comparison opportunities, and it is different to other sources as the comparison is with direct peers. It is also important to note the significance of reports about the frequency of the ‘comments’ made on Facebook being appearance focused.

Given the huge popularity of Facebook, clearly more research is needed to understand the effect on appearance concerns and mental well-being. And as we increase our understanding of the effects, it is clear that the digital literacy of our students and their ability to manage their interactions with their peers through social media will be critical. Prevention is paramount.

At UWE Bristol the digital literacy of our students is a key part of our graduate attributes and our focus on nurturing ‘ready and able graduates’, which informs the design and delivery of our academic programmes. We are also drawing on our experience introducing high-profile preventative programmes, such as bystander intervention in relation to sexual harassment. And we have worked to embed an ethos of respect in our Welcome Weekend programme for new students. It is important that more continues to done by educators and policy makers to boost social media literacy, and beyond this, to increase awareness among parents that social media is yet another source of influence on perceptions of body image.

Clearly this is a societal issue that spreads far beyond universities and involves the whole education system. The launch of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Project at Universities UK last week was a great step forward, which I am very pleased to be leading on. This involves taking a whole university strategic approach to mental health and well-being, starting with a review of the sector, identifying best practice, and the potential development of tools to support future progress. The importance of working together to tackle the issues and support our young people to flourish couldn’t be clearer.

Clear progression pathways critical to meet demand for higher skills

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Today we see the launch of the Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education. I was very pleased to be a member of the panel advising ministers on this important agenda and strongly support its conclusions.

As the report states, there are serious problems with our current system for technical education and these problems continue to present us with a productivity gap that is holding the UK back.

We know that, ‘by 2020, the UK is predicted to rank just 28th of 33 OECD countries in terms of developing intermediate skills. Furthermore the size of the post-secondary technical education sector in England is extremely small by international standards.’ This is very worrying.

Indeed, our current system for technical education is over-complex and often fails to support the development of the skills our economy needs for the future. The system fails to open up the opportunities our young people deserve, and instead often does the opposite, by closing doors.

The report notes that without urgent action, the UK will fall even further behind its competitors. We need to take action to reform technical education to ensure it is aligned to the skills that industry needs for the future. But we also need to take critical steps to really break down the false divide between academic and technical/professional education pathways. Whilst both routes are different and need to have clear progression pathways, movement between the two needs to be available and absolutely clear to learners. It is not right to cut off movement to university undergraduate study to those on technical pathways, just as it is not right to cut off direct movement into skilled employment for those taking A-Levels.

The report therefore recommends that the Government incentivises the development of short, flexible bridging provision to enable individuals to move, in either direction, between the academic and technical education options and to support adults returning to study.

Without this, we are putting in additional barriers to the success of individuals and to our broader economy. We cannot afford for this to happen. There are multiple pathways to higher levels skills. Each need to be celebrated and the whole system needs to work together as holistic offer.

All young people need to be prepared to maximise their potential as they contribute to society and the economy. Our job is to make sure the options available are clear, with different pathways that work to the strengths and talents of individuals. Everyone deserves the opportunity to progress to the highest skills levels. The recommendations in this report are a very important step in achieving this goal.

The role of universities is changing – we can’t just focus on academia

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A new wave of students will be graduating over the next few weeks.  They’ll be attending award ceremonies knowing they face a challenging future, entering the workplace at a time of turmoil and upheaval.

But, as the country struggles to resolve its relationship with the EU, one thing we know for sure is that improving UK productivity and competitiveness is now more important than ever.   And that depends on graduates with the right skills and mindset to compete in the high-tech global knowledge economy.

To succeed, the UK needs a talent revolution.  We are going to need over 100,000 new professional scientists, engineers and technologists each year until 2020. We know that 80 per cent of new jobs are in high-skill areas, placing universities and our graduates at the heart of the future workforce.

This week, the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) brought out its annual UK graduate employability figures. The results revealed that 71 per cent of graduates were employed in professional occupations within sixth months of graduating.

When we look at areas with skills shortages, like allied health professions (nursing) and engineering and technology, the figures are 94 per cent and 84 per cent respectively.

But this only tells half the story. As universities, we must ensure that students have the underpinning knowledge that is then applied in practice.

We have to provide an environment where they can use their knowledge in a way that will help them in a work place setting. It is about developing flexible, creative, well rounded individuals.

Increasingly it’s not good enough just to have the knowledge, you have to be able to apply it in different contexts. We need to equip graduates with the right skills and mindset to drive growth and productivity.  Our role is to teach not just the functional skills, but focus on real world learning experiences that allow them to be adaptable, enterprising and ready for work.

As universities, we can’t do this in isolation.  We need to collaborate with business, the public sector and government to map skill shortages, develop courses and provide internships and work placement opportunities.  Universities need to do more to give students real work place opportunities.

This has led to collaboration with SMEs, industry and the health sector to address the shortage of graduates with specific skills required both nationally and regionally.

Skills mapping has enabled our university to create and expand courses and focus more effectively on particular specialisms.  Over the last four years, we have doubled the number of engineering graduates we train and have introduced subjects such as a new forensic computing course to meet the demand for experts in computer crime and cyber security.

From research and innovation to mapping the skills of the future, it will be progressive, collaborative universities that will fulfill their role as key drivers of our country’s productivity and economic growth.

Whatever the future holds for post-Brexit Britain, graduates will require adaptable, transferable talents such as complex problem-solving, entrepreneurialism and emotional intelligence.

The move should be away from teaching purely functional skills that are outdated almost as soon as they are learned, to focus on real-world learning experiences.

The new generation of graduates need a flexibility of mind that will enable them to cope with uncertainty to make informed decisions and actions.

This way we can we serve the needs of young people and provide great career opportunities, even though many of them would have preferred to stay in the EU. That’s what I think universities are now for.

As published by The Telegraph 2July 2016

To accompany the HESA figures, UWE Bristol has launched ‘The Role Of Progressive Universities In The Global Knowledge Economy’. The report calls on universities to forge closer links with business to bridge the skills gap and increase UK productivity.