Universities are in the business of transforming lives

Our most recent Insight event focused on mental health among students, and harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education. Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Amy Norton, reflects on the event.

Four students having a discussion

During lively discussions about the extent of a university or college’s role in supporting students affected by mental health problems, Peter Francis, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Northumbria University said that ‘universities are in the business of transforming lives’.

Transforming lives goes beyond academia, he argued: positive approaches to supporting mental health among students must form part of the picture. It’s a point that could equally apply to the role of higher education providers in preventing and addressing harassment and sexual misconduct.

Our Insight events are an opportunity to discuss and debate some of the most pressing issues facing higher education. Improving student lives, the second in the series, focused on mental health, and harassment and sexual misconduct.

We heard from a range of speakers about the scale and severity of mental health problems among students, and of reports of harassment and sexual misconduct.

Mental health: a campus or community challenge?

A number of the panellists talked openly about their own experience of mental ill-health. This would have been unusual, indeed virtually unheard of, as little as 30 years ago. That more people are prepared to do so now is a very positive development – the reduction in stigma may be part of the reason we are seeing an increase in students reporting mental health conditions. But as we discussed on the day, there is still a great deal more to do to ensure they get the help they need.

Our most recent Insight brief highlighted that students with declared mental health conditions are less likely to succeed in higher education than their peers. Even more concerning is that this gap appears to be more pronounced for black students with a declared mental health condition.

This has to change.

In March we will be co-hosting a round table with students and experts to begin to explore the issue further, particularly how the effects of harassment and discrimination impact on the mental health of students of colour and in turn their success in higher education.

One of the most prominent themes from the morning was that challenges on this scale are not something that universities can manage alone. Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, emphasised the importance of partnerships with the NHS and other support services. This approach has got to begin with a clear, visible commitment from university and college leaders that the health and wellbeing of their students is a priority.

There was further consensus on the importance of joint working across the staff and student community when designing and delivering support. Rosie Tressler from Student Minds made the point that this must go beyond consulting students to include co-production and real engagement with a diverse range of groups and individuals.

Harassment, hate crime and sexual misconduct

There was an overlap with the second theme of the event, ‘hate and harassment: how do we stop it?’. These are issues faced disproportionately by students with particular characteristics such as people of colour, the LGBT+ community and disabled students.

We also considered the devastating impact of sexual misconduct on campus. The added complexity of hate crime, harassment and sexual misconduct is that there is more than one party to consider: the person making the complaint and the person they are accusing. When both parties are part of a university or college’s community, they both need support.

NUS Disabled Students' Officer Piers Wilkinson said that it is wrong to put the onus on students in these situations, and emphasised that they need effective support from the outset. Current university policies and processes mean that too often, a student who has been a victim of harassment or sexual misconduct must go through some sort of formal complaints process before they are able to get support. There was a strong consensus that the needs of those affected must be the priority. They should be empowered and supported in both their decision making, and their ability to effectively continue and complete their studies.

The issue of prevention surfaced a range of views about educating students to be inclusive, tolerant and respectful. Universities and colleges are uniquely placed to create a culture that influences the views and prejudices of their students. The panel agreed on the need for collaboration between higher education, schools and youth services to start that education early.

Dr Ann Olivarius, a lawyer with extensive experience of cases of sexual harassment in higher education in the UK and the USA, called for clearer guidelines across the sector – for universities and colleges, and for students. This aligns with an approach that the OfS will be consulting on later this week: to set out a statement of expectations for universities and colleges’ handling of harassment and sexual misconduct – from prevention to dealing with complaints. We will be seeking views on how we regulate these issues. But we also hope that a public statement will empower students and others in the higher education community to know what they can expect from their university or college.

The highly engaged audience and insightful discussions at such a well-attended event reflect the collective ambition to make positive change on these issues. The OfS is committed to maintaining the momentum and helping to drive much-needed improvements for the benefit of all students.

Find out more by watching video recordings of the event and reading the Insight brief.


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Published 07 January 2020

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