It is not uncommon for people to look back on their university days as some of the best years of their lives. And indeed they should be, for going to university is a truly transformative experience – giving you the chance to immerse yourself in a subject you love, in a dynamic, supportive environment.
Yet, for some people, their university years are a far cry from the ‘good times’ they had hoped for, and coping with the pressures of academic life can be a difficult and lonely experience.
Today’s university communities are diverse, and so too are the challenges they face: School-leavers studying away from home can find themselves facing a sharp learning curve, living in a new, strange environment while adjusting to degree-level study. Whereas students choosing to commute to university can feel disconnected from campus life and cut off from their peers.
More established students can face difficulties too. As confirmed by the Insight Network survey of almost 38,000 students this week, students moving into their second and third year of study report the highest rates of anxiety and loneliness as academic pressures intensify.
Part-time and mature students may also struggle to juggle their studies around the demands of work or family life, while postgraduate students may feel overwhelmed by funding or publication pressures, or face challenges arising from intense relationships with supervisors.
University staff are equally not immune from anxiety. Academics increasingly battle heavy workloads, while support staff and university management teams frequently have to make difficult decisions and bear the brunt of personal complaints and criticisms.
Any one of these issues, and more, can take their toll on an individual’s health and wellbeing and, if left unchecked, can make the difference between success and failure – or worse. Substance misuse, self-harm and suicide are all known risks from psychological distress and illness. That is why this government has consistently sought to highlight the need for better mental health support for students and staff across the entire university community.
As universities minister, I am pleased to see providers finding new and innovative ways to improve pastoral care on campus. For students, the ‘Welcome Ambassadors’ initiative at the University of Portsmouth helps new students settle in to university life via the support of student mentors, while the award-winning ‘Flying Start’ project at the University of Huddersfield has led to a significant improvement in students’ sense of belonging, engagement and confidence.
Finding out what works to help students handle the challenges that can be associated with going to university is key, which is why today, on University Mental Health Day, we have announced a new taskforce to help people adjust to university life.
The taskforce – known as the Education Transitions Network – will draw on the expertise of leading sector groups to help universities support students in dealing with the issues that are pressing for them, such as integrating into new environments, managing finances and adjusting to independent learning.
Yet, there remains much more to be done. In today’s world of social media and round-the-clock communications, it is a travesty that those battling with poor mental health in university can still go unnoticed and slip through the net.
I commend the bravery of James Murray – father of Bristol University student Ben Murray who took his own life last year after battling anxiety – in calling for better data sharing with families and friends to facilitate early and potentially life-saving interventions.
Nobody should suffer in silence. That is why I am working closely with universities, mental health charities and other sector bodies to drive meaningful improvements in this area. Just yesterday, I held a roundtable at King’s College London to discuss with students and staff what it is like to live, work and study at university. I heard from students who spoke bravely about their experiences with mental health issues, about what more needs to be done to prevent students from falling through cracks, to help students co-create new policies and to support the work already underway as part of the Universities UK Step Change project.
And today, on University Mental Health Day, I will be heading to Leeds to meet the team at the charity Student Minds leading the development of the University Mental Health Charter, something which I hope will incentivise universities to commit to necessary support.
Higher education is a pathway to success. On University Mental Health Day, it is more important than ever that we come together, inspire conversations and take actions that will deliver the further culture change on campus we so desperately need.
Chris Skidmore is the universities minister and Conservative MP for Kingswood