Mental health funding competition

Higher education providers submitted bids for funding to explore innovative and intersectional approaches to target mental health support for students.

The Department of Health and Social Care has provided £1 million of investment to the Office for Students for this funding competition.

The aims of this competition are to:

  • explore innovative approaches to tackling some of the barriers and challenges faced by groups of students who may be more at risk of poor mental health
  • develop and test approaches that enable a more joined up service between the higher education and health sectors
  • test and share effective practice across a wide range of different providers and contexts
  • complement existing work delivered through our 2018 mental health Challenge Competition and provide additional focus on particular groups of students.

How to apply for funding

All providers registered with the OfS in the Approved (fee cap) registration category are eligible to apply for this funding. Other providers can be involved in proposals as part of a collaboration.

Providers should only bid if they consider that they have a credible and viable proposition that very clearly meets the aims and objectives of this competition. Speculative bids should be avoided, given the constraints on funding and the limited number of proposals that can be supported.

Potential bidders are welcome to contact the OfS to discuss their bid. Please email us in the first instance to arrange a call if you would like to discuss your bid further.

Our bidding guidance gives full information of how to apply for funding and eligibility criteria.

Read our bidding guidance

Priority groups

Bids should deliver innovative and targeted activities that address the following priority groups:

  • particular groups of students with characteristics identified as increasing the risk of poor mental health (for example ethnicity, socioeconomic background)
  • groups of students who might experience barriers to accessing support due to their course, mode of study, or other characteristics (for example those on placements, commuters, mature students, part-time students, postgraduate taught students, international students, first in family, carers, care leavers, LGBT+).


We hosted a webinar on 19 October 2020 to support bidders. 

Watch the webinar

Frequently asked questions

What should be included in the bid?

Providers should consider:

  • demonstration of a whole provider approach with senior leadership commitment
  • delivery of value for money
  • creation or progression of strategic, collaborative partnerships that include appropriate levels of co-investment
  • co-creation with students at the heart of your interventions
  • development of an innovative approach, which could include digital approaches
  • a rigorous approach to project design and embedded evaluation
  • integration of service offering between the higher education and the health sector.

We will not fund the essential support services which providers should already be making available for their students. We are seeking proposals that will achieve a significant change above and beyond existing commitments.

Can the bid be focused on student wellbeing more broadly, rather than specifically on poor mental health?

The primary focus of this funding competition is on particular groups of students who may have an increased risk of poor mental health or those who might experience barriers to accessing support due to their course, mode of study, or other characteristics.

Bids could therefore aim to address poor mental health, which may include early interventions and prevention. Bids should focus on providing targeted support for students and shouldn’t be focused on whole student population wellbeing.

If there is no collated national level data for a group of students, is university-level data considered reasonable as part of a justification?

Depending on the group(s) of students that your project focuses on, there may be limited national data available, particularly if you’re seeking to target a group based on the intersection of numerous characteristics. Our analysis of students with reported mental health conditions from November 2019 or our Equality and diversity data webpage might be useful for sector-level data. It may be that you’re able to evidence that university-level data to be robust, for example if it is a large sample size and/or has been collected across a number of years. You may wish to include evidence and data from a number of different sources.

Whatever data and evidence you use to inform the development of your bid, it should be robust to evidence the reason for focusing your work on a specific group(s) of students.

Can this be a research-based project?

As part of your bid, you should ideally have already completed data collection to identify areas for intervention and are required to provide evidence for these.

We are looking for interventions that address the challenge that has been identified and are not able to fund exploratory research projects that are seeking to find out whether there is an issue that should be addressed.

Is there a maximum amount of funding or number of projects that will be funded?

There is £1 million available for this competition. We are seeking high quality proposals providing additional activity to address the priority areas.

With this amount of funding, and funding available between £70,000 and £200,000 per project, we are able to fund between five and 14 projects.

The final number of funded projects will depend on the quality of bids received, available funding, and the judgements and recommendations made through the assessment process.

Is there a minimum and maximum level of funding a provider can apply for?

Individual awards will be made at a minimum of £70,000 and up to a maximum of £200,000. We anticipate funding a number of projects to explore the widest range of interventions and activities across the broadest portfolio possible.

Is full economic costing required?

No, full economic costing is not required but you may use this methodology if you wish to do so. All project costs (and the basis on which they are calculated) must be clear and understandable as these will be considered as part of the assessment process. All costs must be reasonable, particularly for the funding sought from the OfS.

Is co-investment a requirement?

Co-investment is a requirement for this competition and should be appropriate to the scale of the project. However to encourage a broad range of providers to consider bidding for funding through this competition, co-investment can take the form of in-kind contribution both from the lead provider and from partners named in the bid. This should be fully detailed and costed in the project budget as part of the bid submission so that we can understand the cash value of any in-kind contributions.

Can other organisations apply for this funding?

Other organisations can be partners in proposals, but the project lead must be a higher education provider that is eligible for OfS funding.

Bids will need to demonstrate clearly what all partners will contribute to the project, the nature and scope of their involvement, the investment they are contributing and how the collaborations will work successfully, if funded.

Are there any limitations when setting a budget?

Each project will have its own priorities and plans and the costs may need to be more focused on a particular area due to the nature of the activities - for example, some projects may involve higher staffing costs than others.

All project costs (and the basis on which they are calculated) must be clear and understandable as these will be considered as part of the assessment process. All costs must be reasonable, particularly for the funding sought from the OfS.

Co-investment is a requirement of funding, though we recognise that the current pandemic may mean that providers and other partners may not be able to provide as much funding as they might in more normal times. Whilst there is no limit in how the budget is set (including any capital contributions), co-investment should be proportionate to the funding sought from us and in line with the project outcomes. It can be in the form of in-kind contributions from the lead provider and partners. Bid submissions should include a clear rationale for the amount of co-investment, and proposals must demonstrate value for money to support project delivery and outcomes.

Are licences for digital tools funded by the OfS competition?

As the OfS does not fund capital expenses, licences for digital tools such as apps may not be eligible for the competition funding. The OfS defines capital as equipment that has a shelf life of more than one year, meaning that the licences for digital tools may not be able to be funded by the competition. You can instead use other funding sources such as match funding or partner funding. We recommend speaking to your finance or funding team as they may have different advice on what constitutes capital. If this is the case, then licences for digital technology could therefore count as a revenue cost for OfS purposes. In your bid, please make clear how you plan to finance any necessary licences.

Do projects have to be collaborative?

Yes. We expect all projects to have at least one partner, but this does not have to be another higher education provider. For example, partners could include health agencies and third sector organisations.

The proposal must be coherent with all partners having a strategic interest in the activities and there must be full commitment to the project, and co-investment as appropriate.

We are looking to reach a diverse pool of providers that are now registered with the OfS and are keen to see a diversity of providers represented in the portfolio of funded projects.

Providers should consider contacting other providers where there would be benefit in working collaboratively on projects that have similar aims and objectives.   

Could a provider from a devolved nation be included as a strategic partner?

Yes. However, funding can only be provided to higher education providers based in England and meeting the eligibility requirements. Therefore, any provider from a devolved nation involved in the bid could not receive any of this funding and would have to fund any commissioned activity separately.

Can providers be involved in more than one bid?

Providers may only submit and lead one bid and may be involved in one further bid as a partner.

Can projects have international partners?

Projects can have international partners where these would add strategic value to the project and this must be clearly demonstrated in the bid; however only providers registered with the OfS in the Approved (fee cap) category can receive OfS funding.

Can the OfS facilitate a joint bid from a number of small providers?

The OfS is unable to facilitate joint bids for this funding competition but we’d strongly encourage providers to collaborate on bids where appropriate to bring in greater resource and expertise. In our webinar, we showed a list of providers who had indicated they were interested in exploring partnership opportunities.

Can partners be involved in multiple bids?

If your provider is a lead on a bid then it can be involved as a partner in one additional bid. If your provider is not a lead on any bids, or is another type of organisation, then it can be involved in as many bids as it considers it can support strategically. Given the amount of funding available and the likely number of projects that can be funded, partners must think very carefully about the number of bids in which they might be involved. Partners must also be mindful of their capacity to deliver projects and effectively evaluate, should all the bids they might be involved in be successful. The proposal must be coherent with all partners having a strategic interest in the activities and there must be full commitment to the project, and co-investment as appropriate. We will consider this as part of the assessment process and may seek assurance from senior leaders at a partner that it can fulfill all the commitments that have been made, should multiple bids be recommended for funding.

I’m a small provider - can I be a lead on a bid?

We want to encourage providers from across the diversity of the sector to apply for this funding and you can be a lead provider on a bid as long as you are in the Approved (fee cap) category as at 1 October 2020. Please bear in mind that this is a limited pot of money and providers should only bid if they feel they have a credible proposal that meets all the aims and priorities of this competition.

My bid has exceeded the page limit. What are the consequences?

The completed template should not exceed 12 sides of A4. This includes all tablesand does not include the instructions page or data protection sheet. Font size should be no smaller than 11-point Arial. Our assessors and the panel will reserve the right to stop reading proposals if they exceed the page limit.

Does every proposal have to cover all key priority groups of students?

No. Where appropriate and realistic proposals can cover more than one priority, but this is not an expectation. We encourage bids to be focused in their approach and do not expect them to cover all groups of students within a particular priority area. Rather, we want to see evidence-based, innovative bids focused on targeted support for a particular group of students.

How will providers be informed of bid outcomes?

We will inform bidders whether they have been successful during March/April 2021. We will then agree award letters with all successful bidders.

When do projects need to start by?

Projects should begin in May 2021.

When do projects have to complete by?

OfS funding must be spent by March 2023 but projects will have until June 2023 to submit their final evaluation reports.

What monitoring requirements will be involved?

Interim project monitoring reports will focus on progress against key criteria, objectives, impact and milestones, financial accountability and risk management. The end of project report will also seek information on the learning and key outcomes derived from the project, even if these will run beyond the funding period.

As indicated in the competition documentation, all funded projects must be involved in evaluation and dissemination activities undertaken by the OfS and/or the Department of Health and Social Care. Further information on monitoring and evaluation requirements will be set out in grant award letters.

Can providers submit an initial draft bid for review?

We aren’t able to offer a draft review stage in this process, but you’re welcome to contact us if you have specific questions about your proposal.

Where can I find more guidance on this funding competition?

All the information you need to complete a bid is included in the bidding guidance and template. Annex B on this page has additional information about developing an evaluation.

Wavehill, the programme evaluators of the Mental Health Challenge Competition, have recently published two reports: these focus on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the MHCC projects and early findings from this programme. The reports include useful insights on the development and inception phase of mental health projects and we would encourage bidders to read these reports in order to understand the challenges, successes and lessons learned from existing projects.

How much of the bid should be put towards evaluation costs?

The evaluation should be proportionate and appropriate to the bid submitted. Allowing between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the cost of the project for evaluation is often a sensible approach; however this isn’t a strict rule. Your evaluation plan should clearly demonstrate what you’re trying to learn and the methods you will use to do so. The cost of the evaluation will be entirely dependent on what you’re trying to measure and understand, and context specific evaluation is about making sure that the evaluation is useful, credible, robust and proportionate.

Our expectations around evaluation have been set out in the bidding guidance, with further information on evaluation principles in Annex B.

Can the costs for programme evaluation and staff involvement be included in the bid?

Programme-level evaluation costs should come out of the providers’/partners’ co-investment contribution to the project, rather than from any funding from the OfS. Our aim with the programme-level evaluation is to identify the value and impact across the scheme and we intend, through the design of the evaluation, to limit additional burden on providers and partners where possible. While the programme-level and project evaluations are separate, project-level evaluations will feed into and support the programme-level evaluation, enabling projects to make efficient use of their resources and gain additional value than the project-level evaluations can alone provide.

How should projects balance being innovative and delivering new interventions with measuring outcomes and impact?

Evaluation helps us learn about the changes our projects deliver and hold ourselves to account for bringing about those changes (or outcomes). Evaluations for innovative projects are likely to include objectives around feasibility and cost, as well as measuring the delivery towards the outcomes and contribution to longer term impact.

The ultimate aim of the whole programme is to improve mental health outcomes for students; the successful bidders will be undertaking innovative projects in order to work towards this objective. The project-level evaluations will enable projects to understand if these interventions are effective. As you develop your evaluation plan, it is important to be clear about the differences between your broader project outcomes and any specific mental health outcomes for students that your project seeks to nurture.

Contact us

If you have any questions regarding this competition or would like to contact us to arrange a phone call, please email [email protected].

Published 05 March 2020
Last updated 29 October 2020
29 October 2020
New FAQs added on 'Priorities and criteria' and 'Evaluation'
01 October 2020
Updates due to competition relaunch
23 March 2020
Funding competition paused

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