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Beyond Them and Us: Hobbits, Middle Earth, and the Joined-Up Approach

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I've just got back from seeing The Hobbit. It's got a different feel to Lord of the Rings, more light and playful, but there's a familiar subtext. In the Lord of the Rings, the story begins with rivalries between the Elves, Men, and Dwarves. As events unfold, and the groups realize that they face common threats, they put aside their differences and work together. This theme of division and reconciliation recurs throughout the trilogy. In the first of the Hobbit films there are flashes of the same, and as I watched it I found myself thinking about how it parallels real-world situations.

J.R.R. Tolkien published the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950's, during a period of rapid post-war growth. From his romantic portrayal of nature and trees, and his linking of evil with furnaces and fire, he seems to have been worried about the destructiveness of global industrialisation. After the First World War, he entered academia, first at the University of Leeds, and then at Oxford, where he was a Professor of English until his retirement in 1959. If Tolkien was concerned about petty disagreements blinding people to greater issues, it's easy to see how the war might have been an influence. But his time spent on university campuses seems to have done little to allay fears about disjointedness.

In my first blog post, I called on institutions to do more to support students and suggested that stakeholders need to develop more joined-up approaches. The post received a comment that suggested I was showing the same sort of sweeping 'them and us' attitude that I was critical of. But in making this claim, the comment assumed that I didn't also see myself as one of 'them'. The pioneering Healthy Universities framework, developed through a collaboration between the University of Central Lancashire and Manchester Metropolitan University, sets out what can be accomplished on campuses by moving beyond this kind of bordered thinking.

One of the key struggles for mental health campaigners is to dissolve the 'them-us' divide between those with experience of mental ill-health and those without. Whenever I give a talk on mental health I try and emphasise that we are all in the same boat; that each of us has ups and downs, and each of us is vulnerable to periods of crisis if certain circumstances arise. This isn't just about removing discrimination against those with experience of mental ill-health, it's also about removing discrimination against those without such experience. Because much of what we experience is outside of our control, and experience of a particular event should be no prerequisite for empathy.

Often the problem is one of labels. The 'student' label faces its own form of discrimination. Students can be stereotyped as being lazy or ignorant or judged to have an easy life of partying and sleeping - the reality is that students are as diverse as the rest of society. There are some that are motivated and some that are less motivated, some that are taking advantage of social opportunities at university, and some that are already making important contributions to their field or profession. As it becomes harder for students to walk out of university into a profession, many are taking advantage of opportunities on and off campus to experiment with ideas and put theories into practice. They are becoming entrepreneurs, professionals, and experts, even before they graduate. If employers are going to take advantage of the unique skills and attributes within the student community, they will need to look past the 'student' label. In the meantime, for students that want to avoid getting stereotyped, it's easy. Just don't brand yourself a student.

Hindu culture calls the function that enables us to let go of surface-level 'them-us' discrimination, the 'third eye'. The mark that many Hindu people put in the centre of their foreheads to is a sign of their commitment to looking at people on a deeper level, one where we are united in shared struggles. To do this requires us to recognize those areas where we share common ground. This might be a shared goal of killing a fire-breathing dragon...or a shared concern for the welfare of those studying in higher education.

For institutions trying to improve support available to students, there are three key levels of working: the campus level, the local (city/region level), and the national level. On a campus level, institutions such as Leeds Metropolitan University are building wellbeing committees that contain representation from across the institution, and meet regularly to ensure that resources are used efficiently and approaches to student support are joined-up and implemented coherently. On a local level, there are committees such as the Leeds Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Group that contain members of nearby universities and statutory/voluntary organisations, and meet to discuss regional issues and plan campaigns. On a national level, there are bodies such as HUCS, UMHAN, and MWBHE that hold conferences and discuss sector policy. There is much good practice, but local collaborative efforts are still rare, and I've written about the funding constraints that affect MWBHE.

If things are going to improve then we need to look beyond the borders of our own departments and recognise our shared struggles. This means getting clear about our broader objectives and those people and organisations that have an interest in them. It also means identifying what resources we have to bring to the table and then coming together to have serious and lengthy discussions about what can be done.

Tolkien created a world in which the cultural differences between people are represented through dramatic physical differences. The point he makes - whether deliberately or not - is that if Hobbits, Men, Elves, and Dwarves can cross 'them and us' divides to work together, surely we can too.

Author's Note: Do you know a good example of joined-up thinking - either within higher education or elsewhere? Please post it below or contact me through the link in my description and I'll try and get it noticed.