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Minister Gyimah: Universities must ensure their mental health services are fit for purpose

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The Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has written to university Vice Chancellors in England, marking the start of Fresher’s Week by calling on them to make the mental health of their students a priority.

He has also written an op-ed for the Huffington Post, in which he sets out an expectation on university leaders to focus on pastoral care and to use ‘all means in their power to safeguard students from harm’.

The full text of the letter from Minister Gyimah is below:

Thanks to your hard work, we have one of the most open and inclusive higher education systems in the world and I am pleased to see the sector going from strength to strength. This year we have seen record rates of 18 year-olds applying for university, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have also seen record numbers of international students applying to study at one of our world-class universities.

I am pleased that you have been a part of helping this country maintain and bolster our world-class higher education system. As Universities Minister, I want to thank you for the role you play in helping educate the next generation.

Of course, there is still a long way to go and many challenges lie ahead – I am glad I had the chance to address many of the longer-term concerns at the recent Universities UK Conference.

As many of you begin to welcome new students for Freshers’ Week, approximately 400,000 across the country, I am writing to ask for your support in one of the immediate challenges we face as a sector and as a country – student mental health and wellbeing. I want to protect this hugely positive experience for all those starting their new, exciting chapter.

Since I have been in post, I have made this issue one of my top priorities and I have heard first-hand from both students and institutions about the challenges they have faced in this area. With the new academic year upon us, I’m sure you would agree that good mental health and wellbeing underpins successful participation and attainment. Collectively, we must prioritise the wellbeing and mental health of our students – there is no negotiation on this. To make this happen, leadership from the top is essential.

A system-wide approach is also critical. That is why on 28 June I announced new wellbeing initiatives for our higher education institutions. These coincided with the mental health roundtable I hosted at the University of the West of England, Bristol, along with the university’s Vice-Chancellor Steve West, who I commend for the student wellbeing work he is leading there through his Mental Wealth First strategy.

I announced that the government is backing the University Mental Health Charter led by the mental health charity Student Minds which will encourage universities to demonstrate a level of excellence in supporting students’ mental health. This will be an ever more important feature of an institution’s offer to prospective students and their families.

The Charter will go live in the academic year 2019/20, but we should be acting now – as institutions and as a society. Development of the Charter will begin this year and include consultation with institutional leaders and students’ unions, as well as with students themselves. I would ask you personally to engage with this consultation when it is rolled out early in 2019 and ensure a diverse range of voices are heard, including academics, mental health practitioners, social activity organisers, accommodation providers and domestic staff.

I expect high standards to be set within the Charter that will require each university’s senior leadership team to deliver positive change. The best way to prepare to meet those standards, is to assess your institution’s approach to mental health and wellbeing in light of Universities UK’s StepChange framework. I want universities to use the build-up to the Charter launch to review what mental health practice is in place and improve areas that are inadequate.

StepChange promotes a whole-institution approach; and that takes strong and engaged leadership at all levels, led by you and your board of governors. I would ask that you lead by example and demonstrate your strong personal leadership in this area for the sake of today’s and tomorrow’s students.

This is just one initiative that will make a difference to the lives of students, but I’m hugely encouraged by broader schemes that are supporting people across the sector. For example, just last week UK Research and Innovation launched eight new mental health networks, which will bring together researchers to better understand the causes of mental health challenges, develop new treatments and tackle social isolation.

I would also like to highlight two recently developed resources that you and your wellbeing teams will want to be aware of: the first is transitions guidance for students in their early terms at university; and the second is Universities UK’s suicide prevention and response guidance  published on 5 September.

The broader achievements we have made as a sector so far are benefiting students up and down the country – there is no detracting from the academic success and value of the higher education sector. But, advancing a student’s education is not the only commitment you must make to them as they make the life-changing decision to study with you. I know that you are all concerned, as I am, over the wellbeing of your students.

I send you and your staff my very best wishes as you embark on the new term ahead. And I very much look forward to hearing more on the progress you’re making with your pastoral care offer as I continue to meet with institutional leaders in coming months.

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