Student support: could do better

Nothing any commentator can write about the death of a talented young person – in this case one of a terrible series of student suicides, most recently at the University of Bristol – can possibly help the families or friends of those who have died. On any level, student suicide is shocking and (that overused word, but the only one appropriate) tragic. How are we to respond at the news of another Bristol death and, tellingly, the overwhelmingly negative student response to the university’s own plans for student welfare?Chris Ramsey, The King's School Chester crop

All we can do is ask ourselves how we can strive to do something useful; to help them meet their demons and face the future optimistically.

It is always reassuringly sensible to turn first to the facts. More school-leavers are going to university than ever before, and there’s reason to say that society is a more uncertain place for this generation.  That said, the proportion of student suicides has not increased.  So, is there a ‘suicide epidemic’? Probably not. That’s not to say there is no problem, of course. We should be getting better as a society, not stagnating, and addressing the increasing mental health problems amongst students is a key part of that.

We do believe in schools that pastoral care is crucial – but do we see our job enough as being about equipping young people for life beyond school … and do we work well enough with universities in this area?

Perhaps, for example, we as educators need to do a better job reminding school leavers that university will sometimes be tough, lonely, hard work and not always a ‘success’. We say it will be wonderful, but we forget to say that you won’t be told all the answers. You will be unhappy at times. You will experience bad behaviour by others and may wonder who and what you are. And we need to equip them to cope.

Easier said than done, of course, but here for what they are worth are my thoughts as well all do our best to digest Bristol’s awful news. To kick off, Bristol’s own answer – ‘welfare hubs’ – seems to me the diametrically wrong thing to do, a kind of industrialisation of the problem. I’d go the other way: smaller halls of residence, lots more graduate or mentoring staff around, and they don’t have to be experts – the ‘college’ model in short. Of course employ professionals, but get the students living in ways which are less anonymous.

Then, self-help is often the most powerful resource. Students should be more widely trained in Mental Health First Aid, so that they can recognise in themselves and others what are simply tough times, and what really are health problems, and how to get help. Students are often brilliant at setting up their own help groups, and these should be supported and championed by universities. Sadly, they are sometimes ignored. Students Unions are frequently outstanding sources of support: again, let’s champion and support that work they do.

The group of Heads I co-Chair visited a university last week where both of these points were powerfully made: Durham has deliberately broken the undergraduate population down into smaller College units, and encouraged students themselves to mentor and lead. Leicester University have similarly build accommodation blocks along ‘boarding house’ lines, with mentors scattered amongst the first years, and inter-block competitions and events.

And this is key, because I do believe, too, that coping with unstructured time is often a problem: I remember it well myself. Though more teaching hours is not necessarily the answer, more structured study groups, meeting at set times in libraries and departments, more informal seminars and above all 1-1 tutorials, of the type all universities claim to have, and few students ever in my experience say ever really exist outside Oxbridge – all these would help.

To be fair, mental health is certainly a hot topic, high on the list of areas universities are, in my experience, keen to talk about, and high on the list of parental concerns. Interestingly to me, it’s also more talked-about by students themselves than ever before. There seem to be three big factors at play.

First, the overall levels of dissatisfaction with Higher Education as an experience. Of course most students have a challenging, enriching and transformative experience at university. But survey after survey also tells us that students grumble more than ever about value for money (in what is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a transactional relationship), are critical of teaching quality and contact hours (this often wrongly, be it said, but there we are), and feel the shock of the transition from a structured, protected environment in schools where all the answers are provided and emphasis is on safety, often very deeply.

Second, though universities all mean well, there is to be frank wide variety in welfare provision, and in some of the big, ‘name’ institutions, it is less than one would expect. Big is not always beautiful, and it is not for nothing that the small, specialist institutions (music colleges, smaller universities, and especially those with defined ‘college’ units) tend to top league tables of student satisfaction. Does Oxbridge still provide individual mentors in its colleges, I recently asked a tutor? Of course: it’s a crucial part of student welfare. Yet my own minuscule slice of experience, through my own children in highly-respected Russell Group universities, is that this obvious (and free) provision is absent. It’s notable too that the ‘personal tutor’ all universities boast of, is an absentee figure for many.

Finally, and here I speculate in the world of sociology, is it not also true that we as a society have come to accept less easily that things will sometimes go wrong? We think we have a right to perfection and progress, and when that does not happen, we feel let down.

At some point, we all have to become adults. Anthony Seldon, who knows more about school and university transition than most, having led both schools and a university, thinks we might do well to raise the age of majority to 19. I’m not sure, though I do think universities can’t simply hide behind the ’18-year olds are adults’ excuse they sometimes do. No, we all have to help youngsters cope: take more risks in school, do better work on transition, and keep telling them that occasional failure is ok, and make sure there are people around to help.

Guiding into adulthood never has been easy. It is perhaps no more difficult really now than it was in the past, though it certainly isn’t any easier. It shouldn’t take suicides to jolt us all into action, but if these events do, maybe some good will have come.

Chris Ramsey

Headmaster of Whitgift School and HE spokesman for HMC