Has the governing body given attention to the institution’s policies and actions in relation to students’ mental health?

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David Williams the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor, highlights one area where governing bodies may need to give increased attention following the recent report from HEPI, on the students’ mental health.

Governing bodies have overall responsibility for the strategic direction and sustainability of higher education institutions (HEIs). Governors are concerned about all matters fundamentally affecting the institution and its sustainability. Typically, amongst the many matters that a governing body will exercise oversight is student recruitment, retention and achievement. An emerging concern will the potential to impact significantly on student retention is mental health.

A new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), ‘The invisible problem? Improving student mental health’, suggests that increasing numbers of HE students are experiencing mental health problems. The report highlights that the matter has significant implications not just for the student, but also the institution. Students experiencing mental health issues are at greater risk of not completing their studies, and the institution facing a loss of tuition fee income. Given the rising incidence of mental health issues, the report suggests governing bodies could consider giving one governor a specific remit to track their institution’s progress in improving mental health support.

The majority of higher education students in the UK enter full-time undergraduate education aged 18 or 19. While these students are classed as adults and able to vote in public elections, less attention is paid to the major transitions they face when entering higher education for the first time.

The HEPI report points out that unlike many other countries the UK has a ‘boarding school model’ of higher education. This means students normally live away from home for the first time.

At precisely the point when they face significant academic and personal changes, including the need to come to terms with new forms of learning and build new friendships, students are separated from their support networks. The increasingly demanding nature of the graduate labour market and rising student debt levels add further pressure on students to do well at university.

Student distress is particularly centered on feelings of stress, anxiety and unhappiness. The report highlights the need for students to develop emotional resilience and learn how to become more compassionate to themselves and others. Cognitive ability on its own is insufficient to ensure student survival and achievement.

Although the data is incomplete and increased levels of disclosure and awareness may account in part for the rising demand falling on university counselling services, the HEPI report suggests there is clear evidence that mental health issues are becoming more common amongst higher education students. The assessment is supported by the responses from HEIs to recent freedom of information requests made by The Guardian newspaper.

The HEPI report questions the level of current support for mental health being provided by some HEIs. Expenditure to support students shows marked variation.

The report cites examples of institutional good practice, but equally suggests that governing bodies need to seek assurance that the institution has a formal mental health policy and associated action plan. A pre-condition for assessing such policies and plans is ensuring the scale of the problem at the institution is understood together with the current level of support offered. Data about the scale of students’ mental health problems tends to be patchy.

If they haven’t already addressed the issue, a governing body should examine the provision provided by their institution to support students with mental health difficulties. Above all, governing bodies need to ensure mental health issues affecting students are understood and appropriately addressed.

David Williams has been by the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor since 2013. He has worked with the governing bodies and senior leadership teams of different higher education institutions for over 20 years.

Editor’s notes

  1. For a full set of briefing guides on governance edited by David, please go to www.lfhe.ac.uk/govbriefings
  2. Read the latest news on governance, including the latest newspiece by David on students’ mental health and the role of governing bodies, click here
  3. Other blogs on governance include:
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    How can universities enhance the strategic development of the academic portfolio?Poland’s rapid response to change in higher education makes it a hidden gem