The first ProtectED Conversations event took place in Manchester on Friday, beginning a series of quarterly talks where higher education professionals, academics and ProtectED Member institutions meet to share perspectives on issues impacting students' safety and wellbeing.
Each ProtectED Conversation is themed, with Friday’s event focusing on collaborative approaches to supporting student wellbeing, the role of the Students’ Union in improving the student experience, and the impact of student debt.
Lisa Banks – Director of Student Services at the University of Central Lancashire
Lisa opened the day’s talks by sharing her approach to student services at UCLan, a ProtectED Founder member institution. She began by reflecting on how much the student experience has changed in recent years, and the challenge this poses for universities as they develop and deliver student support services. Lisa observed, “More students are working while at university now — in some cases undertaking a 40 hour week alongside their studies, or working in placements due to the nature of their course. We’re also seeing more mature students, and those with families to care for.”
A recent Parliamentary report found a link between social media use and mental ill health in young people — another trend that Lisa has noticed among students. While recognising that social media is an effective tool for raising awareness of support services, she explained, “Students will comment that they often look at other people’s social media feeds and feel that their lives don’t match up, or aren’t as exciting, and they put additional pressure on themselves.”
Record numbers of people now go on to higher education, so universities will inevitably encounter students dealing with a wider range of personal, medical, or financial issues. Lisa and her team at UCLan are alert to this, understanding that adjusting to university life can be challenging for all students, regardless of their background or experiences. Lisa recommends that institutions consult the Student Minds Transitions guidance: “Get together, read through the guidance, talk about what you can do at your institution to make it easier for your students to adjust.” The document offers tools to help students manage their time, relationships, finances, mental health and much more, as well as signposting to additional help, if needed.
UCLan also offer tailored support to help specific student groups settle in to university life, and thrive: for example, the student services team have developed dedicated web pages and support materials for applicants and prospective students on the autistic spectrum. Further, they carefully consider how best to support their 4,000 onsite international students, which Lisa explained: “We initially ran a welcome week for international students during the week prior to Freshers’ Week, but through seeking student feedback, we found that some students felt segregated from domestic students.”
In response, UCLan now run orientation events for the whole student population, while simultaneously offering dedicated support for certain groups. For international students, this includes a free airport pick-up service; a phone call to ensure students are settling in well; and the option to attend additional social events through ESN UCLan (International and Exchange Students Society). Students are supported to open a bank account, and register with the police (if applicable), and are provided with British Council ‘Creating Confidence’ guidance to help them have a safe, positive time in the UK. A Christmas dinner is also laid on for international and domestic students who remain on campus over the festive period, taking into account that some students may be estranged from their families.
Starting a conversation
When planning services to support a diverse and growing student population, Lisa pointed out the careful balance that needs to be struck between proactive and reactive services: “It’s so tempting to put all of your resources into crisis, but you must drag some back to prevention. You can’t throw everything at the problem, without providing ways to help students grow and be resilient.” She informs her approach by keeping a conversation going with like-minded individuals and organisations across the sector, speaking with colleagues, students and academics, and meeting with Universities UK and the Office for Students.
Lisa recognises the potential that ProtectED membership offers UCLan for working collaboratively with other HEIs and experts to support students, developing valuable networks of communication: “As more universities join, it’s a great way to find like-minded institutions to work with and share good practice. We found the exercise of sitting down with the ProtectED Code of Practice and working through it to be a really helpful. It let us see where we stand.” The Code of Practice not only offers a comprehensive benchmark against which universities can measure their policies and practices, but also is populated throughout with case studies that provide an valuable insight into good practice in the sector.
Partnership working is at the heart of UCLan’s approach to supporting student wellbeing, and Lisa took the decision to unite their related university services under one umbrella, creating the CMHW (Counselling, Mental Health and Wellbeing) team. This turned out to be a great decision: “Too many things can go wrong if your services aren’t working together. Previously, our work to support student wellbeing was taking place in pockets around the university. Now that these different individuals and initiatives are working together, we’re better able to get the right student to the right support at the right time.”
Academic advisors and mental health services also work together — a relationship that allows the CMHW team to speak to a student’s personal tutor or academic advisor on their behalf if they are experiencing difficulties, without disclosing why the student is engaging with them. The team run training sessions for academic advisors, as well as tailored version for Students’ Union representatives: this helps them to recognise problems and signpost students to the type of support they may need, before a situation escalates.
UCLan also work with external partners such as the local NHS trust’s Mindsmatter initiative. This partnership has helped the university to reduce their waiting list for mental health and wellbeing support, at no additional cost to themselves: “Where other services who have an agenda to support the community exist, we will get them on campus and link them up students who may benefit from their expertise,” Lisa explained. Other partnerships include those between the University and Lancashire Constabulary, and with Young Addaction Lancashire — a substance misuse service for under 25s. This work is a clear reflection of Lisa’s vision for student services at UCLan: “The goal is to get to a point where the majority of our resources are in prevention, and it’s easier to do this in collaboration.”
Lily Green and Sarah Thompson – UCLan Students’ Union
Next, we heard from Lily Green (VP Welfare) and Sarah Thompson (Academic Representation Coordinator) from UCLan Students’ Union (SU) on the importance of collaborative work between universities and Students’ Unions.
Lily began by setting out what SUs can offer universities working in partnership with them: “We have our ear to the ground and any action that we decide to take is based on what students are telling us. We are on the same side [as universities] and we want students to succeed. We offer the necessary student perspective which is needed to s