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Universities have a moral responsibility to act on students’ mental health issues – but where do they start?

Richard Gascoigne, CEO of Solutionpath

With the increasingly sophisticated technology at all businesses’ disposure today, it’s relatively uncontroversial that universities today have more opportunities than ever before to make their processes more efficient, achieve more visibility and consequently support their students in the best way they can. With that in mind, the ex-health minister Sir Norman Lamb’s recent comments that universities should be bound by law to meet the mental health needs of their students should be equally embraced.

According to NHS statistics, mental health issues affect 1 in 4 people each year. This clearly demonstrates that mental health issues are a more pervasive problem in society and not just limited to schools. Therefore, given that students starting university are arguably in one or the most vulnerable periods of their life, universities should be proportionately sensitive to their needs while they attend their institutions. Indeed, many are laudably taking direct action to help the students in their care, either by implementing early alert systems or analysing student data to identify at-risk individuals.

Universities of course carry a heavy burden of responsibilities, especially given their limited resources to allocate towards counselling, pastoral or medical services, all of which are normally under the purview of the NHS. Data compiled by Sir Norman Lamb also indicates a significant variation in the volumes of service users at different universities – 19.97% of students were reportedly in counselling at the University of Leicester, with only 1.2% at the University of Bedfordshire. With this all in mind, it is a real problem that, while the motivation behind their actions is an excellent one, their execution and design often are not.

With resources to help students already stretched, many universities decide to focus attention on the limited information they have, normally in the form of superficial demographic data. This leads to them taking action where it may not be needed, therefore squandering efforts and achieving next to nothing towards addressing real problems. Insights and predictions need to be based on real-time data that is objective and specific to each individual. Limited resources can therefore more easily show indicators of need through factors like drops in engagement, rather than profile indicators based on biased data from demographic indicators.

Although there are certainly numerous factors that go into determining why some discrepancies might exist, universities need a uniform method to record and share data to avoid these kinds of severe irregularities. Not having a set procedure in place when it comes to collecting data can lead not only to ambiguity, but to misleading statistics like those above – it is unlikely that students at the University of Leicester are in fact in much more need of counselling than those at the University of Bedfordshire. The clear answer to this issue is that these institutions need to invest in and implement tools that grant visibility of real-time engagement data, giving them a better understanding of natural (and, by extension, irregular) learner patterns.

To give another example, if BAME students are isolated as being most at risk at a given university, how could the institution then effectively approach every BAME student in a timely manner to check if they need help. Bradford and Aston University, for instance, have roughly 70% BAME students, which, while excellent for widening participation, renders the demographic approach simply not feasible if we acknowledge the need for precision and effectiveness. Add to this the recent reports that one university attempted to harvest data from students’ social media profiles in order to identify at-risk individuals and it becomes clear that neither strategy is ideal for quickly addressing mental health issue in individual students. Such overly-broad or privacy-breaching strategies run the risk of degrading students’ trust in their institutions that they can provide the support they could require in a time of need.

There are, of course, numerous universities taking a more responsible, targeted approach. For instance, Nottingham Trent University (NTU), instead of relying on demographics, looks at the patterns of individual student participation in order to uncover the subtle changes in behaviour that are often the top indicators for concern. By implementing a dashboard, easily-accessible to students and staff, that monitors students’ day-to-day activity, including whether they are attending lectures, going to the library or even the union, they can determine whether a student is engaged with their environment or beginning to withdraw from university life. If a lack of engagement is registered for 14 days straight, an alert is then sent to their tutor to prompt them to set up a meeting and address the issue. This approach means efforts are more focused, more effective and far more likely to identify individuals truly in need of support, and played a key role in NTU being named The Guardian’s ‘University of the Year’.

As we begin to see more universities take this proactive approach of using data to support student wellbeing, they will more easily be able to fulfil one of their core objectives, namely caring for the most vulnerable individuals under their care. The first step in achieving this, rather than invading students’ privacy or considering them part of societal groups seen to be ‘potentially vulnerable’, is committing to the collection of detailed, real-time objective engagement data that can be transparently, accurately and efficiently leveraged to support individuals’ overall wellbeing.

Richard Gascoigne, CEO of Solutionpath

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