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Student support and wellbeing: the challenges of today and tomorrow -  In conversation with HE

Student support and wellbeing: the challenges of today and tomorrow - In conversation with HE

recent survey by Wonkhe, focusing on student wellbeing during the pandemic, highlighted that out of over 7,000 students who took part from 121 institutions, 12.6% are considering dropping out, rising to roughly one in five from non-selective state schools and disabled students. Over half of the sample reported feeling lonely on a daily or weekly basis. Just 8.2% reported strong feelings of happiness, down from 14% before the pandemic and 32% for young people pre-pandemic. 

On Wednesday 17th March 2021, Tribal, in partnership with PA Consulting, enabled an open and honest conversation with eleven HE institutions around student support and wellbeing services. With the growing concern surrounding the Student Mental Health Crisis, this was an opportunity for universities to hear from fellow peers to share insights, challenges, and lessons learned for the future. Student Minds, a UK student mental health charity, provided valuable insights to the group sharing resources and views from their experiences. Higher education leads from Microsoft were also on hand to contribute to the discussion as a player in the field, particularly interested in the role that student support teams see for predictive technologies in student support.  

 Institution contributors*:

Debra Ogden – Deputy Director of Student Services – Imperial College London  

Tracy Barber – Head of Student Central Advice Team – Oxford Brookes University 

John Ryan – Head of Student Welfare and Wellbeing – Liverpool Hope University  

Penny Turnbull – Assistant Director, Student Services and SID Product Owner – University of St. Andrews 

Joanne Mann – Implementation Officer – Cardiff Metropolitan University  

Raven Pratt – Head of Student Services – Brunel University  

Lisa Dawson – Director of Student Systems and Administration – University of Edinburgh 

Paul Manchester – CRM Test and Implementation Manager – Sheffield Hallam University  

Wilna Gracias – Student Wellbeing Project Manager – King's College London 

*Institutions that have agreed to be sited in this blog.

Looking back

People data and multiple systems 

A key discussion topic at the roundtable was the challenge institutions are facing joining up multiple systems to monitor engagement, such as absence data and academic alerts around tutorials and case management. If systems don't always speak to each, it can be hard to get oversight of students at risk.

Penny Turnbull, Assistant Director, Student Services and SID Product Owner at University of St. Andrews explains,

"We are very interested in looking at how we join up people, data, and multiple systems to ensure students aren't falling through any gaps. Moving to a future where multiple forms of delivery are more likely to bring challenges to us, particularly in terms of not having as many opportunities to have eyes on our students in a physical setting".  

- Penny Turnbull, Assistant Director, Student Services and SID Product Owner, University of St Andrews

With institutions offering blended delivery and many students still at home, the institutions have a challenge as they know not all students communicate with student services. Whereas before, when students went home during holidays, institutions felt they could rely on students' families and support services within their local areas to provide support. The pandemic has wholly changed this attitude.  

To combat this, one institution highlighted they have support teams within all residences that are calling, emailing and visiting students at least every two weeks to check in on them.  In response to Penny's earlier comment regarding ensuring students do not fall through the gaps, Lisa Dawson, Director of Student Systems and Administration at University of Edinburgh said

"There is a lot of value in making telephone calls and maintaining human contact whilst we remain off campus. We have created a contact centre to respond to students and parents throughout the pandemic. It has created a central space to call which enables us to triage effectively across the whole university and enabled us to maintain regular contact with students of concern". 

- Lisa Dawson, Director of Student Systems and Administration at University of Edinburgh 

Another institution confirmed they have recently put a centralised support system in place to monitor any behaviour that triggers a concern, for example, students asking for coursework extensions. A third institution has introduced a retention referral pathway alongside wellbeing concerns to pick up students off the radar for unknown reasons. The retention team actions any problems and can refer on for further support if required, allowing other teams the capacity to follow up on students without taking resources from the wellbeing specialists. 

The role of an institution and protecting student's as well as the workforce's mental wellbeing 

There was a call for clarity of the role of an institution in managing mental health. With 165 universities in the UK and the increasing pressure for universities to protect students due to the backlog of NHS waiting times, many institutions struggle to decipher when a case is their priority or when it should be escalated to become an NHS concern. One institution mentioned introducing a Student Welfare Manager role, which bridges central wellbeing services and partners with academics to provide qualified support. The discussion led to considering the need for professional psychiatric support, which is not particularly a role they want to offer but institutions are at a loss as to how to solve this issue.  

Not only was there concern for the student's mental wellbeing, but many institutions discussed increased pressure on the workforce due to recruitment freezes. One institution mentioned the anxiety around staff commuting and using public transport when lockdown ends and considering a phased return and offering a blended model of remote and face-to-face working for the foreseeable future.  

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It was raised that many processes are dealt with across faculties, resulting in it becoming a challenge to join up processes between academic and support services and understanding who takes responsibility within an institution.  

"We have centralised our Mitigating Circumstances process at King's, alongside pushing a comms campaign to students and staff to ensure everyone is clear about how this process works. Our system allows our students to digitally write their own words, taking away the annoyance of having to tell your story multiple times to various members of staff". 

Wilna Gracias, Student Wellbeing Project Manager, Kings College London

Looking to the future

The positives of blended delivery  

A blended approach for student support services is undoubtedly the future, and all institutions on the call agreed that this is the way forward. Whilst this may be a positive in some areas, for example, providing services that students can access from any location, any device, and using technology that many are comfortable using, there is a lot of work to do to make this work for both the institution and their students. There is also a question about how blended learning will impact with fewer 'eyes on the student'? 

Remote services may have been brought in at speed over the last year, but now is the time to review and make sure the services are suitable and accessible to all. Wilna from King's College London made an interesting point. 

"While a step in the right direction, we need to think about how our systems, policies, and procedures are negatively impacting our staff and students. It's not just learning the system, it's how the system works and navigating that system. If you think about our students from vulnerable groups, who are less experienced or first-generation students who don't necessarily have the inside information or the social capital compared to students familiar with higher education, navigating the system can be very, very difficult. And so, we do have a responsibility to help students gain confidence in the University and University systems as they navigate accessing support." 

- Wilna Gracias, Kings College London

Institutions should reduce the amount of stress and work for both students and staff, so it's easy for all to quickly access and use support services.  

A blended approach and using technology and data trends can help institutions understand what support students are looking for by reviewing which articles are most viewed, have the most click-throughs, and whether specific demographics are using and contacting support services. It was mentioned that one of the most viewed articles from one university’s online self-service knowledge base was an article about "how to access counselling”. This information might not have been spotted in a face-to-face only setting. Universities can look at trends around the most searched word, for example, or even look at what gender, ethnicity, or minority groups are accessing support or coming through via referrals to help specifically support those groups.  

This data is important, but it will not fully take over from the human point of contact, which cannot be replaced. All institutions highlighted the role of a human adding context and understanding emotion, and the ability to have a face-to-face communication or a telephone call is still vital.  

Engagement scores – is this the future? 

Is the future to use engagement scores to predict trends and flag early intervention? One University was undertaking a pilot that involved joining together several data sources to create an engagement score to see when somebody moves into a negative trajectory and therefore intervene before it gets to that point. However, there was a concern over the ethics of using this data, and the initial pilot used anonymized data. It was agreed that machines should not make those interventions or decisions, but rather the data and score should provide an added insight to a person who can then add context to the score and look deeper into the trend.  

Students need a seat at the table  

It was clear from the discussion that peer-to-peer support and training students on how to signpost fellow students were important. But getting students involved shouldn't stop there; students should have a seat at the table to provide feedback and intel direct to the institution to input to wellbeing strategies. At some Universities this involved; partnering with students, inviting students to steer groups, or adopting a peer support programme; a student led volunteer initiative that is fully trained to support other students should they need to. Student Wellbeing Officers at one university provide a strong link to sports societies, halls of residence and student unions to gather insight from these areas. Another institution has a Director of Wellbeing role within the students' associations which is fully elected by students to represent the student body. Students will be innovative, creative, and honest, and this insight is invaluable to learning and improving support services. 

Peer-to-peer support is also helpful as there can still be a stigma around mental health and seeking support around that. Student Minds, a UK student mental health charity, was a constant voice throughout the roundtable event and offered resources to empower students and community members to look after their mental health, support others, and create change. On the subject of peer-to-peer support Dom Smithies, Student Voice and Health Inequalities Lead from Student Minds, added

"The best outcomes come from when there is a genuine relationship of it being delivered by peers." 

- Dom Smithies, Student Voice and Health Inequalities 

Student Space, run by Student Minds, has been developed collaboratively with services, higher education professionals, researchers and students to complement the existing services available to students. Student Minds also run a podcast, Changing MENtality, in which they share conversations, stories and interviews on the topic of men's mental health, which was a topic of concern throughout the discussion. Hosted by a group of male students, sharing their own experiences helps eliminate stigma, raise awareness and signpost others to find the help they need. 

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.  

Tracy Barber, Head of Student Central Advice Team at Oxford Brookes University concluded,

“The session was extremely informative and in the current climate, these roundtable events are invaluable to assist in sharing good practice and understanding how different institutions have approached the last 12 months. The session was of particular interest around the future planning post-pandemic and how this will be influenced by technology and how it will be shaped in the coming months. In order to take some positives out of the last 12 months, to assist in service delivery."

- Tracy Barber, Head of Student Central Advice Team, Oxford Brookes University 

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.  

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