What Happened to Pastoral Care?

21/10/2015 10:14 | Updated 20 October 2016

We might be talking more about mental health at university, but there is a related concept, one more rooted within the tradition of higher education and yet crucial to any current discussion about mental health in education, that seems to have faded from view.

In an article for Times Higher Education last week, Anthony Seldon became the first university vice-chancellor to call out universities for not doing enough to protect students' mental health. Those familiar with Dr. Seldon and his work on well-being at Wellington College and Action for Happiness will not have been surprised by what he had to say. But the article featured an expression that has been conspicuously absent from most of the conversations on mental health in higher education: 'pastoral care'.

Over the past 10 years or so, usage of the expression has diminished. The Royal College of Psychiatrists' 2011 95-page report on the 'Mental health of students in higher education' contains 290 references to 'mental health' and 56 for the word 'well-being', but just for 3 for 'pastoral' - with 2 of those referring to GP practices. By contrast, the previous report, published in 2003, was just 66 pages but contained 12 references to 'pastoral' - 2 more than 'well-being'.

Part of the preference for 'well-being' over pastoral care can be attributed to the secularisation of university campuses. Wikipedia describes pastoral care as "emotional and spiritual support". The idea of 'spiritual support' can seem old fashioned and unpopular, whereas well-being has been a popular subject of study amongst psychologists and economists.

Perhaps there is more to it than that. The Oxford Dictionary defines pastoral care as "relating to or denoting a teacher's responsibility for the general well-being of pupils or students". Central to this definition is the assumption that teachers (and educational institutions) have a responsibility for the well-being of students. Does the loss of the term 'pastoral care' reflect that we no longer tend to hold universities responsible for student welfare?

Widening access to higher education has brought sharp increases in the number of students. The effects of falling staff-student ratios on students have been compounded by pressure on academics to increase their research output. This isn't how it's meant to be. In the earliest days of western education, teachers might have had an entire week to devote to one or a handful of students. Today, students with a scattering of weekly classes can consider themselves fortunate if their lecturer even knows their name.

Some of the changes in higher education are inevitable. Most of us can't afford to employ a private tutor. It's unavoidable that giving more people the chance to attend university will mean sacrificing some of the small-group time between staff and students. But the disturbing thing is that we barely seem to have noticed this sacrifice.

Growing (and justified) criticism over inadequate funding for mental health services has overshadowed general wellbeing and support needs. And while university lobbying groups can argue that responsibility for treating those with mental illness largely rests with the NHS, the same cannot be said of general student well-being. There has always been an assumption that when a student arrives at university, their parents are handing over duty of care to the institution. In recent years, this assumption has become less and less justifiable.

There is a trend in academia towards distinguishing intellectual needs from emotional needs, and then trying to monopolise the former and dismiss the latter - something Dr. Seldon refers to as an "unhelpful divide". This seems like an understatement. Intellectual development necessarily involves emotional upheaval. Good teaching helps steer us through that. As recent debates about trigger warnings and safe spaces show, if educational institutions ignore emotional needs then it's not just our mental health that suffers, but also our intellectual growth.

If we acknowledge this as a problem, then it's one that goes beyond the education sector, and dates back decades. The individualism championed under a Thatcher government tends to emphasise personal responsibility; the expansion of universities under a Blair government have made it harder for to provide individualised support, and the economics of higher education lead us to prioritise numbers before norms.

None of this means that pastoral care is doomed, and reinvigorating it doesn't necessarily depend on reversing student numbers. Universities can prioritise (and monitor) personal tutoring, develop mentoring schemes and strengthen support services. But if we expect universities to take responsibility for the well-being of students then we need to tell them this. And, crucially, to recognise those that do it well.