To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what steps his Department is taking to improve mental healthcare provision for students in the context of the covid-19 outbreak.
24 May 2021
Student mental health and suicide prevention are key priorities for this government. We continue to work closely with the higher education (HE) sector to promote good practice. Universities are not only experts in their student population, but also best placed to identify the needs of their particular student body, including those students undertaking placements as part of their studies.
Whilst it is for HE providers to determine what welfare and counselling services they need to provide to their students to offer that support, the government is proactive in promoting good practice in this area. We continue to work closely with Universities UK (UUK) on embedding the Stepchange programme within the sector. Further information can be found here: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/stepchange. Stepchange calls on HE leaders to adopt mental health as a strategic priority and take a whole-institution approach, embedding it across all policies, cultures, curricula and practice. The Stepchange programme relaunched in March 2020 as the Mentally Healthy Universities programme. The university Mental Health Charter, announced in June 2018, is backed by the government and led by the sector. The charter, developed in collaboration with students, staff and partner organisations, aims to drive up standards of practice, including leadership, early intervention and data collection. Further information can be accessed here: https://www.studentminds.org.uk/charter.html.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, I have stressed the importance of protecting student and staff wellbeing. We recognise that many students are facing additional mental health challenges due to the disruption and uncertainty caused by the outbreak. I have engaged with universities on this issue and have written to Vice Chancellors on numerous occasions during the past year, most recently last month, outlining that student welfare should remain a priority. I have also convened a working group of representatives from the HE and health sectors to specifically address the current and pressing issues that students are facing during the COVID-19 outbreak.
My hon. Friend, the Minister for Children and Families, and I have also convened a Mental Health in Education Action Group to drive action to mitigate the impact of the outbreak on the mental health and wellbeing of children, young people and staff in nurseries, schools, colleges and universities.
We expect HE providers to continue to support their students, which has included making services accessible from a distance whilst restrictions have been in place. We encourage students to stay in touch with their provider’s welfare teams as these services are likely to continue to be an important source of support. Many providers have bolstered their existing mental health services, and adapted delivery mechanisms including reaching out to students who may be more vulnerable. Staff at universities and colleges have been proactive in supporting their students, showing resourcefulness and there are many examples of good practice.
We have worked with the Office for Students (OfS) to provide Student Space, a dedicated mental health and wellbeing platform for students, which has been funded by up to £3 million by the OfS in the 2020/21 academic year. We have also asked the OfS to allocate £15 million towards student mental health in 2021/22 through proposed reforms to Strategic Priorities Grant funding, to help address the challenges to student mental health posed by the transition to university, given the increasing demand for mental health services. This will target those students in greatest need of such services, including vulnerable groups and hard-to-reach students.
The Office for National Statistics data shows that in 2016/17 – the last year on record – there were 95 student deaths by suicide in England and Wales. Further information can be found here: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/estimatingsuicideamonghighereducationstudentsenglandandwalesexperimentalstatistics/2018-06-25#:~:text=The%20rate%20of%20suicide%20in,it%20difficult%20to%20identify%20statistically.
The incoming President of UUK, Professor Steve West, and I will jointly chair a new roundtable on suicide prevention in June. Through this we will develop and support the adoption of the Suicide Safer Universities framework and promote good practice in the sector, helping to make sure students are well supported during their time at university, including when undertaking placements as part of their studies.