With an ongoing global pandemic, university support services are as salient as ever. With the majority of students studying remotely, and others finding themselves restricted to their hall's bedrooms, most students are facing a degree of social isolation. With first year students likely to be away from home for the first time, adapting to life away from established support networks leaves them particularly vulnerable and zoom calls are no substitute for typical socialising, societies and university life. The enforcement of covid guidelines within halls of residence has left some students feeling “harassed”.
At the end of last year and first semester of the academic year, the NUS published statistics that over half of students had reported that their mental health had deteriorated, since the start of the pandemic.
For those finished with their studies, they graduate into what the IMF has described as the worst recession since the 1930s. Those still studying have a reduced offering of internships and networking opportunities. It's a tough time to be a student and universities must ensure that they are upholding their duty of care.
What services are available?
From the research we have conducted it appears that on the most part universities in the UK have some sort of wellbeing or support services available to their students, but quality and the extent to which they meet user needs will vary by institution. The Services provided may consist of anything from mental health counselors to Independent Sexual Violence Advisors, with the latter appearing to be less common. It is not uncommon for universities to have an implementation of the Nightline service, which the Nightlight Association provides guidance for. This initiative affords students free and confidential advice over the phone, in an effort to combat nighttime isolation. Student’s Unions should also offer student support, independently of their affiliated university. Generally, they can provide guidance on the aforementioned issues, in addition to other issues relevant to students such as housing or university disciplinary procedures.
Why do students need Support Services?
Student support services are vital, at a time when many young people are away from home and navigating living independently. Most students in the UK move away from home to attend university, and this is often the first time they are living independently. An exciting time for many young people, but one which also risks being overwhelming - surrounded by strangers, students may struggle to cope with the transition or may encounter other issues at any point during their degree. University support services should be able to provide expert and impartial advice to young people who may not know where else to turn, or have the means to access private counselling if required.
Unfortunately, what has been put in place to support students may also fail them, with various issues contributing to why there is a lack of adequate help.
Why are they difficult to access?
Though the pandemic is a new phenomenon, issues around student support and funding unfortunately are not. It was reported in 2020 that some 125,000 students were attending institutions that had cut mental health budgets, or failed to increase them over the course of the five years prior. This is a significant proportion of the student population and comes alongside other alarming figures such as, in 2015 cuts to DSA allowances were made; cutting the funding in place, that supports and allows students living with disabilities access to tertiary education.
As reflected in the name, many students may turn to academic and personal tutors for guidance and support regarding issues impacting their studies - including those around their mental health or academic workload. Typically, every student is paired with one and a relationship with a member of staff can support with signposting and strategies for managing stress. However, these staff have a predominately academic role and need the appropriate training to know how to support struggling students. A report in The Boar student newspaper at Warwick unveiled that personal tutors received just two hours of mental health training. The majority of these staff will not be mental health professionals and should not be treated as such, particularly as many have heavy workloads of their own.
How can universities overcome these issues?
For universities to start addressing issues of student wellbeing and mental health there needs to be an understanding of how these issues manifest at each institution. As the Lib Dems push for minimum thresholds for the quality of student mental health support, some figures have been uncovered regarding average waiting times for counselling services and spending to services, Unfortunately, there are gaps in this data as one in six surveyed could not provide data on their level of spending and half did not know how many of their students had lost their life to suicide.
It’s not just enough for universities to provide support, it needs to be accessible and provided in a timely manner, as well as provisions being made for students with intersectional lived experiences due to race, cultural background or other factors which can influence what support a student needs. For instance students from a racially minoritized background have voiced that often white counsellors struggle to resonate with them, which goes on to impact the quality of support. This issue is one which is gaining increasing recognition as Cambridge university became one of the first to allow students to request a therapist with a shared ethnic background to themselves in 2018, a move which one can hope will become commonplace at other institutions.
At the end of 2020 the Scottish Funding Council announced additional funding for the new academic year, in recognition of how the ongoing pandemic has affected student wellbeing and mental health. This funding was allocated by the Scottish Government and is available to universities and colleges in addition to other funding that had previously provided for the recruitment of counsellors offering support.
A move to increase funding is a positive one but just one part of addressing the diverse issues which have contributed to declines in students’ mental health.
Having co-written this piece from a student and recent graduate, insight and motivation for this piece was in large part informed by our personal experiences - and failings - by our universities. We saw these experiences reflected in our research. Alongside our recommendations we would like to finish with recommendations outlined by a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute. These include allowances for students to be registered at their home GP, in addition to one at the university town; to allow continuity of care and support. Additionally, it outlines compelling reasons for education providers to collect data around their mental health policies and whether their implementations are successful.
Nky is a recent graduate who read Business Management and Economics. She co-founded the campaign after participating in campaigns training facilitated by her Student’s Union and selected the topic due to her own experiences and observations of how universities were falling short when it came to support students who had faced sexual harassment and violence as well as racialised sexual violence. Some of her writings are on the Reclaim the Campus website and she has previously written a contribution alongside Lara for Women in Foreign Policy. Outside of the campaign she volunteers with organisations such as Chayn, The Equalities Trust and Irise International.
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Note: 'Student Blog' articles highlight the student perspective on issues relating to ProtectED. Consequently, this article reflects the views of the author and not ProtectED.