From education to employment

What current research demonstrates about student mental health, and why there is still much room for improvement

dave sherwood

University Mental Health Day provided a chance to reflect on a turbulent few years for higher education students. Whilst workplace changes such as furloughs and remote working swiftly passed through the government, students were left wondering how much of their university years would be permanently altered and whether educational and social changes would impact their mental health.

The majority of universities did all they could to assist students in this transition, but, as with any unprecedented event, this transition was not always smooth. As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, research suggests more needs to be done when considering how to improve student mental health at a higher education level.

Research into mental health in university students

Despite BibliU finding 58% of UK higher-education students believe their university had made improvements to their learning experience during the pandemic, UK university students’ life satisfaction has remained below average. UK students scored 6.6, lower than the average 16-29-year-old (6.9) and statistically significantly lower than the adult average (7.1). What’s more, a 2020 study concluded 76% of students across the UK, US, Netherlands, France, Spain, Australia, and Nordic countries struggle to maintain their well-being, as did 73% of staff. A 2020 survey for the UK specifically found 26% of higher education students felt lonely during the pandemic, a stark contrast to 8% of adults outside of education.

Many reasons outside of students’ learning experiences may have influenced these results, but BibliU’s research, conducted on 1,000 UK students in 2020, shows that there is much room for improvement in education satisfaction, resource quality, and mental health.

Firstly, almost half (49%) of students believed lower prices for learning resources would improve the quality of their education. Similarly, 49% of respondents agreed further mental health support would advance the quality of their education.

In 2021, UCAS reported a 450% increase in mental health condition declarations in their applications over the last decade. Reacting to this trend, 80% of senior leaders at 165 UK universities said mental health and wellbeing was an essential strategic focus – 50% of leaders said financial concerns for students were also a primary concern. These worries are well-founded and influence student behaviour. Recent research discovered that 70% of students at UK universities skipped buying essential learning resources. 35% of respondents said they were not affordable, whilst another 32% cited the textbooks were not of a high enough quality to be worth the money. 

The correlation between mental health and resource quality

Almost half (46%) of students describing feelings of loneliness agreed these could be partially negated by contacting friends. Digital textbooks can contain social functions within them and BibliU does this in two ways. Firstly, there is a chat function where students and academics alike can discuss and critique course contents. The second is in-book editing, allowing students to annotate and source extracts for remote debates. 

Collaborative learning functions within resources allow students to engage with other pupils, facilitating social elements in their learning. This is particularly useful for special educational needs (SEN) students that may struggle with physical access to classes, international students who may need more time to understand written English content and feel they cannot contribute in class, and those who suffer from social anxiety, as they can virtually contribute if they feel unable or uncomfortable to do so in class. 

A lack of quality resources may lead to a lesser understanding of course content and, consequently, lower grades. This is a vital consideration for improving mental health in students, as academic achievements statistically correlate to better happiness. Failure to provide adequate quality resources may therefore have an indirect effect on student mental health. Digital resources feature many functions that make learning far more efficient than physical library textbooks. 

BibliU Engage can serve as an example, containing instructional strategies and artificial intelligence (AI) to increase student engagement through content interactivity. Discussion pages and in-book quizzes are two features of Engage. The latter uses AI learning to analyse students’ strengths and weaknesses on particular topics before automatically altering end-of-chapter quizzes to help students recognise and target areas of weaker understanding. 

Students all learn differently. Digital textbooks can be adapted to student learning preferences by enabling interactivity between words, images, infographics, and highlighting and sharing capabilities – meaning students can learn in the way that suits them best.

Financial accessibility

Financial stress is evidenced as a primary concern for both students and institutions. Whilst the cost of living ramps up, students also have to contend with course and student loans debts, and the hidden costs in education – with textbooks a determining factor. The average cost of textbooks – which have experienced a 1,041% increase between 1977 and 2016 – is between £450 and £1,070 per student per year, an unsustainable figure for regular students and international students in particular, who often pay double the yearly fees. 

Some education resource providers, like BibliU, remove the cost of academic resources from the student and instead partner directly with the university. This means that students’ access to high-quality resources is included in their standard university fees. When institutions offer this, they make a considerable leap in removing the hidden costs from students so they can focus more on their education and less on their finances. 

Better quality, economically accessible textbooks that facilitate social functions can help reduce student worries and encourage collaborative and higher-quality peer-to-peer learning. As the evidence suggests, these aspects need to be widely addressed if we want to improve student mental health. Education resources are well-positioned to help in this resolution. Going forward, resources must push for innovation, with a focus on learning quality and collaborative aspects to drive student interactivity and understanding.

Dave Sherwood, CEO & Founder at BibliU

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