Mental health: How proactive can universities be?
(Last updated: 13 May 2021)
A recent report, The Positive and Mindful University, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute and co-authored by the Vice-Chancellor and head of Psychology at the University of Buckingham, suggests that universities need to engage more proactively in their students' lives to help prevent them from suffering from the student mental health problems that are becoming an increasingly prevalent part of university life in the twenty-first century.
The report advocates a "positive psychology" approach to dealing with students mental health issues, including a focus on psychological wellbeing and mindfulness throughout the student's career and not only when they encounter problems. The report also calls out a culture of widespread acceptance of binge-drinking and recreational drug use, especially during Freshers' Weekand induction events, that can both exacerbate latent student mental health problems and alienate those who don't wish to partake in this culture.
While it’s this idea of curbing student “excesses” that has resonated most in the headlines, the report is about much more than freshers (and their more seasoned peers) partying all night in a drink- or drug-fuelled haze and waking up the next morning with a monster hangover. The report raises important questions in relation to the role universities play in the lives of contemporary students, and the responsibilities each has to the other. And they are questions that have been complicated significantly by the corporatisation of Higher Education and the ways in which it has reshaped the perceived relationship between students and universities.
The changing role of universities
Go back thirty years and that relationship is much more clearly defined. Tuition fees were entirely subsidised by the government, and students were awarded maintenance grants. Far fewer students attended university in the UK, but for those who did it was recognised as both an opportunity and a privilege. Universities occupied a position of power and authority in relation to their students, and could readily demand that students followed any guidelines related to conduct – whether that related to their academic or personal lives. This doesn’t mean, of course, that students always behaved impeccably, but it does mean that, for the most part, students saw themselves as having a duty to the institution at which they studied, rather than the other way round.
To a degree, this model has been able to persist up until very recently – even when students were paying upwards of £3000 per year in tuition, more than half the cost of their education was still subsidised. And it's arguably still the case at Britain's top universities, where the prestige of a degree from, say, Oxford or Cambridge still outweighs its market value in fees. But in an era when tuition costs more than £9000 per year and is still rising, this model is no longer sustainable for many students and universities.
The changing role of the student
For the majority of students, their education is a very substantial investment that they'll be paying off for a long time. And for that they expect to see a proportional return in the "product" (the quality of teaching, the value of their degree in the job marketplace) that's delivered to them. This has given rise to a "students-as-customers" model, in which universities increasingly operate as businesses in a crowded marketplace, competing for the business of student "clients" who can choose to patronise whatever institution they choose – subject to minimum entry requirements, of course.
This changing model has a knock-on effect on the relationship between university and student, and in turn on how pastoral care is viewed and implemented. On the one hand, the student-as-customer model suggests that a university's role begins and ends with the delivery of the "product" for which the student is paying – the delivery of high-quality tuition, the fair and timely marking of assignments, and so on. Students who identify most strongly as clients or customers may feel quite strongly that the university has no place forcing itself into their extra-curricular business, and would be best served sticking to supplying the goods they've paid for.
But of course, it's not that simple. Universities are populated overwhelmingly by young people taking their first steps into adulthood, which by definition makes many of them vulnerable. And because of mounting costs and the increasingly competitive graduate job market, university is an increasingly stressful place to be. It will be interesting to see how much proactive engagement universities feel compelled to make in their students' psychological wellbeing over the next few years, as they attempt to deal with the growing numbers of their students who experience mental health issues. And, just as importantly, how much today's student-clients will permit or tolerate such "proactive" engagement.