Student Mental Health as a Policy Issue | AUA Blog

Dr Andrew West, FAUA is Strategic Adviser to the AUA and a Fellow of the Halpin Partnership

Mental health has been characterised by one vice-chancellor as “undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges affecting the education sector.” Financial Times 5 March 2018 [Paywall]  Meanwhile the universities minister has called on higher education “to dramatically improve its mental health offering for students”, and has announced the development of a new mental health charter. Last year’s Universities UK publication under the banner of “stepchange” presaged the ministerial announcement by inviting higher education to adopt mental health as a strategic imperative, implementing a whole university approach. 

As a former Director of Student Services at the University of Sheffield and former Chair of AMOSSHE – The Student Services Organisation you would expect me to have a strong interest in student mental health from a student support and operational delivery point of view.  While that’s certainly true, I have long been convinced of the importance of a strategic approach in student services.  At Sheffield we introduced our first student mental health strategy in 2007 – ten years ahead of “stepchange” and I suspect somewhat in advance of many universities.  Now, alongside my role as Strategic Adviser to AUA, I am working as a consultant in HE, including assisting a number of universities with issues around student mental health. 

Typically, the topic rapidly leads me into questions of policy and in this blog, I want simply to lay out half a dozen of the key policy issues which institutions are currently grappling with, based on my experience.   As I look at it, these are genuinely tricky areas; the questions are frequently contested, and it is not uncommon to experience widely varying views across a typical university (and students’ union) community.

I wonder how your own institution might be considering these issues?  I would be interested in your comments and reflections.


1. Where does your university sit in policy terms as regards mental (ill) health on the one hand and student wellbeing on the other? Where do you place your emphasis and how does that decision play through into resourcing priorities?  Somewhere in the ill health-wellbeing spectrum sits the concept of student resilience – a topic of hot recent debate in many universities and a subject on which AMOSSHE offers some great resources.

2. What is your policy on duty of care toward students and how are you responding to some of the recent questions about acting ‘in loco parentis’? Do you have a good understanding of your legal duties and have you created a formal statement, or protocol, or procedures, around duty of care?  Who owns any such policy in the institution?

3. Where does your policy on student mental health, which may not directly connect to a legislative framework, interface with the institution’s statutory duty in areas like equality and disability? Is there suitable clarity around what is a legislative responsibility and what might be described as best operational practice, and does this distinction matter in policy terms?

4. How does your policy on mental health impact on operational service delivery? A very practical example of the policy/operation conundrum relates to waiting lists (if you have them) for services like student counselling.  If, like most universities, your mental health policy is about supporting students in their studies, and your term is ten weeks long, but your waiting list extends to twelve weeks, are you delivering a viable student service in support of your policy?

5. What might be the policy impacts relating to student mental health in your educational and research strategies in the heart of the institution’s academic endeavour.  How are issues of student wellbeing reflected in curriculum and assessment design?  What research are you commissioning to inform institutional policy and procedure?

6. Finally, have you decided as a matter of policy to consider student and staff mental health issues together, or do you think the varying needs of the two groups are best served by distinct approaches?

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