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Student support and wellbeing: technology, data and peer support - In conversation with HE

This year’s annual National Student Survey, run by the OfS, found only 42% of students felt enough was done to help them. OfS head, Nichola Dandridge, said more must be done to look after students 

Ms. Dandridge said: 

"Clearly, the circumstances last year were exceptional, but consideration should be given to what more can be done to ensure students are appropriately supported … We have also been clear that students should be receiving good quality mental health support."  

On Wednesday, 7th July 2021, Tribal held the second roundtable discussion of the year with senior colleagues that lead student support services from the higher education sector, the conversations were centred around student support and wellbeing and the role of technology and data. The virtual discussion brought twelve senior leaders from across the UK together to have an honest conversation to understand the trends, challenges and share insights in the sector.   

Institution contributors:  

Krassimira Teneva, Head of International Experience at Sheffield Hallam University 

Alice Ludgate, Head of Student Services at University of Plymouth  

Rachel Jones, Inclusion Services Operational Support Manager at Glyndwr University 

Tina Sharpe, Disability Services Manager at De Montfort University 

Dave Wilson, Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager at University of Cumbria 

Graham Mahon, Student Services Software Manager at Kingston University 

Rachel Crabtree, Head of Student Information Systems at University of Reading 

Senior representatives from:  

University of Warwick 

Staffordshire University 

Aston University 

University of Bristol 

Blackpool and the Fylde College 

Technology acting as an enabler  

The discussion started around how technology has helped institutions over the last 18 months during the global pandemic.  

Alice Ludgate, Head of Student Services at University of Plymouth started

"Technology has enabled us to support students regardless of where they are in the country or even the world. It has presented us with a lot of opportunities which has been fantastic. It has brought forward many agenda items such as virtual counselling. We are not having a quiet summer like we ordinarily would have had; this year, we continue to support throughout the summer.   

Our challenge is resources and capacity. Unfortunately, the increase in demand doesn't equate to an increase in resourcing, so I am trying to build capacity into existing resources. I am interested to hear how we can use AI and become more automated to help with resources and protect staff spending too much time on admin tasks." 

An attendeeadded, "Without technology in lockdown, we would not have been able to support students". 

An attendeewas able to input from an institution with both higher and further education provision and discussed how they are trying of use different apps and technology to try and reduce administration tasks so staff can focus more of their time on helping student.    

One institution honestly admitted that the pandemic exposed some problems that they were already aware of but made them much worse. Problems surrounding joining up data and their ability to use the data in sophisticated ways, as well as content and the governance of information. The use of chat-bots was highlighted as only being 'as good as what you feed into them,' with many institutions nodding in agreement. 

Graham Mahon, Student Services Software Manager at Kingston University also agreed that,

“technology has helped over the last 18 months as they have been able to implement tools much quicker”.  

It was agreed amongst all institutions that access to technology over the last eighteen months has been paramount to being able to carry on as usual, as much as possible. Many institutions mentioned that the pandemic offered them opportunities and allowed them to implement things faster than what it would have typically taken had Covid had not been present.  

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Integration and bringing data together  

It was a common theme throughout the discussion that institutions have too many platforms and data points. It was agreed that having too much data is overwhelming. It was questioned whether the focus should be on having more data or focusing on the correct yet limited data readily available. Institutions' approaches need to be holistic; institutions often create a silo approach to a problem to solve it quickly, which can cause issues in the long run.   

Krassimira Teneva, Head of International Experience at Sheffield Hallam, said

"Solutions online have been the answer for us in the pandemic, we work with many international students and all of our support sessions had to be delivered entirely via Zoom or Skype. A challenge for us is that we work across several platforms; it's fragmented. In my team alone, we use at least three different tools to support applicants and students. The number of enquiries we are receiving has exploded, but we need to be more efficient, we need one central system." 

Dave Wilson – Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager at University of Cumbriainputted, 

"We are currently embedding a new system as we speak that is going to be used across all student services and will be much more efficient in terms of early intervention. Right now, it feels as though across student services, we all have different parts of a jigsaw to a student's life, hopefully, the new system will allow us to bring everything together to create one picture."  

The question was raised, how do institutions track engagement. There was a call for technology that offers automated interactions in a sophisticated manner, so students feel they're getting some contact from their university. However, one institution disagreed with this and advised that students who are high risk and need support won't be checking their emails. This institution has now created a new role within the team that involves staff consistently checking up on high-risk students without relying on email.  

Peer-to-peer support  

The role and success of various peer-to-peer support programmes and activities was significantly discussed. It is clear that peer support programmes can help to build a strong culture of support across an institution and help students feel more comfortable engaging with support.  A WONKHE blog explains “a peer-to-peer support and advising programme utilises undergraduates as peer advisors to supplement the student support efforts of professional advisors … They can help to bridge the gap when the background and lived experiences of advisors differ from those of their students.” 

Dave Wilson – Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager at University of Cumbriacommented,

"Our university has had a successful wellbeing peer support programme for a number of years, but it wasn't until lockdown that I truly felt like we have nailed it. We trained students to offer peer support during the Christmas period, and it has been a huge success. It has allowed students to get access to counselling and mental health support.” 

With the latest statistics showing that 1 in 5 students has a current mental health diagnosis and 1 in 3 experiencing a serious psychological issue for which they needed professional help, fast, efficient support is paramount. A report published by Student Minds highlights the value of peer to peer support,  “while students recognise symptoms of mental health difficulties, only a minority are likely seek support from professionals including a GP (26%) or university counselling service (10%) 13 . Other students report that they would seek support from friends (25%), parents or family (26%) if they felt they were experiencing mental health difficulties13.” 

Dave Wilson – Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager at University of Cumbriacontinued, 

"We have many student ambassadors who are built into the university process and have relevant experience they can share, they're paid as ambassadors but are very much classed as a peer rather than university staff. Pre-covid, we used to limit ourselves to only offering peer support to those on the same campus; however, we now use technology and offer remote services. Ten years ago, a student survey showed that students wanted to use Skype; we invested and only had twelve appointments, whereas now Skype / MS Teams is booming, and our DNA (did not attend rate) has plummeted. Students like the fact they don't need to go anywhere; they can attend virtually at a place that is convenient to them". 

Tina Sharpe, Disability Service Manager at De Montfort said;

"We provide a service called 'Look After Your Mate', ran via Student Minds. The online training programme enables university staff to deliver the Look After Your Mate workshop, which empowers students to support friends experiencing mental health difficulties while looking after their wellbeing.” 

Conversation soon led to outreach support for groups of students that student support and wellbeing departments don't typically engage with. Many universities agreed that over the last year they have seen a rise in male students and BAME students engaging within support services a lot more.   

 Connecting the entire campus ecosystem 

The overarching theme throughout the conversation centred around institutions feeling as though the overwhelming amount of data readily available, across multiple systems, with limited workforce capacity, proves challenging in finding a solution when there is such an increase in demand versus a decrease in resourcing.  

It was acknowledged that students are permanently on mobile devices, but services are not readily available on mobile. Many institutions agreed that the priority is enabling self-service, where possible and providing support at a time and through a channel that students are comfortable using. Students are given so much information, and institutions should investigate mapping out a journey of what a student needs and when. There was a call for tailored content that is personal to the student, is simple to follow, and does not overload the student with information.  

The attendees agreed that students need to access support through a variety of channels and that using simply email is just not enough. “I don’t reply to an automated email outside of work so why should we expect a student to!” added Dave Wilson, Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager at University of Cumbria.  A multi-channel approach designed with student experience in mind is key to the success of support services. But there needs to be a strategy to connect and link all of the platform to try and create a single source of truth.   

There was further discussion on the sheer volume of resources and content that is available to students and the need to monitor where this is shared and howAn attendee told the group that one of their priorities in enabling self-service and to do this they are doing “lots of work around content strategy, including more governance around what information is available and how to access it.” 

Final thoughts 

In summary, the discussion was led by the use of platforms and software to enhance student support delivery services and the challenges around organisational structures, people and training, and the role of the university and the individuals within an institution in looking after student mental health and wellbeing.  One institution discussed embedding support and wellbeing through the whole institution, including the curriculum. By embedding talks on mental health and wellbeing into the timetable students will attend and this can reduce the number of students turning to support services. A final comment from Tina Sharpe, Disability Services Manager at De Montfort University, “their aim is that they don’t have any students use their service” which highlights the importance of proactive activity in training and informing the whole institution, so students are always supported.  

Tribal is committed to raising awareness of Student Minds and the importance of looking after student mental health and supporting the community to create change. Tribal will be running a series of discussions to continue the conversation amongst the university community, register your interest to join future conversation with the higher education sector.  

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