Speech from NUS Vice President Welfare, Eva Crossan-Jory, at the APPG for Students event 28/01/20.
Hello, my name is Eva, and I am the Vice President for Welfare at the National Union of Students. Thank you for coming today. I think the student officers in the room will have some interesting questions, and that’s what I hope we can give our time to today, but I do want to highlight some of the key issues that the students I represent have highlighted around mental health and wellbeing.
At many events in higher and further education settings, the sharp rise in mental health disclosures is usually highlighted. Most of the time, it’s an opportunity for the sector to congratulate itself on an increased level of trust meaning people are more willing to disclose. We at NUS also believe that there are more disclosures because there are more people with challenging mental health. We believe key things have become harder for students.
A decade of challenging economic conditions mean that students often feel a heavy weight to succeed. Actual costs have gone up: average student rents went up by 17 per cent of the maximum loan over the past five years. Financial stress is a key and increasing concern for students – insecurity now, and insecurity in the future, make people stressed.
Students also face more personal stress and scrutiny. Many face bullying and harassment online. Officers I’ve worked with have faced racialised bullying online, from newspapers, and millionaires on twitter. But the government prefers students to be under surveillance rather than supported, and the Prevent duty undercuts safeguarding concerns. Muslim students in particular look at support services and wonder if their counsellors biases will get them reported.
All of this is during a time where the National Health Service is crumbling. Privatisation hasn’t started with free at the point of access healthcare being denied to us. It’s started by profitable services being contracted out and costly ones – such as mental health provision – being starved of funds and denied the necessary level of staffing.
And though there are so many policy decisions and challenges created over the last decade, so often individual solutions – like students increasing their own “emotional intelligence” and “resilience” – are given as the only solution to a set of issues created by government and policy.
But there are some opportunities here. Support services need to be effectively funded and linked from educational institutions through to the National Health Services. Universities, the department for education and the department for health, along with NUS, students’ unions, and other partners, are working at this. I would however caution that further education colleges must not be forgotten in this work, or treated as if they’re schools.
Services must be accessible. We often talk about cultural competency. This means university and college support services can have the requisite skills and understanding to make their services accessible to and inclusive of students regardless of their background. This requires work and investment but where it’s been addressed it continues to transform these services for the better.
And finally there is work among the sector. We at NUS have led the way in Scotland with Think Positive, enabling students’ unions and their colleges and universities to systematically structure their work on mental health, following outcome agreements.
Student Minds have put together their charter, detailing how they think universities can make positive change on mental health, and I’m hoping we can talk about the charter today. Universities UK also are refreshing their Step Change Framework, aimed at supporting senior university heads on taking a whole university approach. We hope this will shine a light on the decisions that universities – and the government - make that negatively impact on student mental health.
But it’s not just national schemes. Our students’ unions and their colleges and universities do work without government support and we need to highlight, share, and learn from this work. I would particularly highlight the huge focus and investment that the further education sector has attempted to take on the issue, even as their budgets have withered. This has been without government or regulatory intervention in the further education sector in England, such as the university sector received via Student Minds and OfS. The Association of Colleges have produced a Mental Health and Wellbeing Charter for their colleges, and we should discuss how to develop this work collectively in the current context of further education across the UK.
Finally, I want to highlight how important it is for decision-makers to recognise the responsibility they bear. Students have highlighted the stresses they face and their representative organisations such as NUS have researched the causes to provide evidence that change is needed. Policy decisions can be made that will improve student mental health. The students I represent are looking forward to see what government and parliament chooses to do.