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.

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.

Value of a degree

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The value of a degree is once again in the spotlight, with a misleading focus on immediate outcomes (Half of recent UK graduates stuck in non-graduate jobs, says ONS, 19 November), and suggestions that degrees are superfluous to many jobs – in particular nursing (Vince Cable: university degrees ‘superfluous to many jobs’, 13 November).

I strongly disagree.

With regards to nursing, I have worked in health and academia for many years and I would highlight just how different healthcare delivery is now. We need practitioners who can problem solve, deal with the complex needs of patients, manage technologies and people, work quickly, safely and accurately under highly pressured scenarios and support effective team working. These are skills that are developed as part of higher education.

Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, Professor Paul Gough, was featured on Radio 4’s You and Yours programme yesterday challenging more broadly the very misleading assertions we have been hearing about the value of a degree today.

University is not just about preparing students for the immediate workplace. It is about ensuring that our students can engage and flourish in a rapidly changing world, where knowledge and understanding are at a premium, in what is an information rich environment.

Our economy in the UK is increasingly knowledge-based. As Libby Hackett, CEO of University Alliance recently commented, OECD data shows that we will need more, not fewer, highly skilled graduates to meet the future demands of our economy. Of new jobs created between now and 2025, 80% are predicted to be at graduate level.

There can be no doubt that change will continue at pace, based on technologies that are beyond our current imagination and creating jobs that we have not yet thought of. The adaptability and agility that our graduates develop through their university experience is highly sought after – and crucial to patterns of economic growth and social development in the UK. They need to be life-long learners, able to engage with and apply different types of knowledge as they need it throughout their lives.

At UWE Bristol, we focus on preparing our students for this environment through our real-world approach, and the many opportunities we offer for our students to apply ideas in the workplace and make contacts with employers. We focus not only on using cutting edge case studies to engage with complex theoretical concepts but also:

  • Using advanced simulations of real-life scenarios
  • Running one of the largest paid undergraduate internship schemes in the UK
  • Linking students into ‘live’ projects with communities and business
  • Professional one-to-one careers support
  • Innovative and high quality employer-engaged courses

Degrees are changing. Our new ‘Team Entrepreneurship’ is an excellent example of a new approach to studying and learning about business, where students set up and run their own team company that will earn money finding and completing real projects for real organisations.

And our approach pays off. At UWE Bristol we are very proud of the success of our students, being the 6th best university for employability and 2nd best for the value-added we bring to our students.

We need to bring these opportunities to more not fewer students. The premium for graduate skills will only continue to rise in the future, given the shape of our future workforce. We need to support more people to be the agile lifelong learners that our economy and society need for the future.

Visit from Number 10

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Today I was very pleased to welcome Chris Lockwood, Deputy Head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, to UWE Bristol and share with him our ambitious plans for the future and some of the fantastic research insights and opportunities we are generating. Chris was impressed with our developments in robotics and biosensing, and our role in driving regional economic growth. We also discussed the University Alliance’s Uni_Funding project and options to create a more sustainable funding system that can support the growth that we need in the UK HE sector.

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