With A New Year Upon Us, Universities Must Ensure Their Mental Health Services Are Fit For Purpose

Going to university is a once in a lifetime experience for most students. Leaving home, meeting new people and taking on a new level of study should fill them with excitement, and not dread. 

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Freshers’ Week for many universities is now upon us and over a million students will be returning to their studies from Monday. For 400,000 of those students, it will be a brand new, exciting experience.

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As the universities minister, I want to protect this hugely positive experience for everyone choosing to study at any one of the UK’s world-class universities. Our institutions have a crucial role to play in this and that means providing the right support for their students.

That is why I have written to vice chancellors and leaders across the country to ask for their support, making clear their responsibility to students in terms of pastoral care. Collectively, we must prioritise the wellbeing and mental health of our students – there is no negotiation on this.

Making this change requires strong leadership, and I expect university chiefs to lead by example to instil a sense of the real importance of wellbeing across the institution – this includes prioritising pastoral care and using all means in their power to safeguard students from harm.

This is not just my vision, it’s a shared vision – across society and across the sector. Over the summer, I co-hosted a student mental health summit at the University of the West of England, Bristol, alongside their vice chancellor Steve West, who is leading by example with his commitment to transforming mental health provision services at his institution.

At the summit, I announced new wellbeing initiatives for UK higher education institutions. This included the development of a new Charter, led by the charity Student Minds, to develop new standards for universities when it comes to supporting student mental health.

The Charter will go live in the academic year 2019/20, but it is time for universities to act now and use this new academic year to review their mental health practices and ensure they are fit for purpose.

This is just one initiative that will make a difference to the lives of students, but I’m hugely encouraged by broader schemes that are supporting people across the sector. For example, just last week UK Research and Innovation launched eight new mental health networks, which will bring together researchers to better understand the causes, develop new treatments and tackle social isolation. 

It is true that universities are asked to do more than they used to, but it is also true that society asks much more of universities than we did a generation ago. 

That because we are in a new era, and it is no longer acceptable for universities to solely see their responsibility as the training of the mind.

Tackling mental health challenges cannot be something that belongs to the wellbeing department of a university – it requires sustained and serious leadership from the top.

I’ll be visiting a number of universities in the upcoming academic year, and will make it a priority of mine to look at the progress being made to support students with their mental health.

Sam Gyimah is the universities minister and Conservative MP for East Surrey

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