As the parliamentary and university terms resume, the item at the top of the agenda for both politicians and vice-chancellors is almost certainly Brexit.
For politicians, this will mean fighting in parliament and on the airwaves for their preferred outcome from negotiations with the EU. And for vice-chancellors, it will mean highlighting and looking to mitigate the possible risks posed by Brexit to international student numbers and research funding.
There is, however, another issue which should be making politicians and vice-chancellors sit up and take notice as the new term gets under way.
This week, IPPR published new analysis which shows that, over the past ten years, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of students who disclose a mental health condition to their university (rising from around 3,145 to 15,395 students).
And many more experience mental distress or low wellbeing which may not be severe enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis, but which means they are likely to require some degree of support to help them get back on track. According to the most conservative estimates, one in three students report feeling down or depressed. And students experience significantly lower wellbeing than the average across all adults.
Students cite academic pressures as the biggest factor affecting their mental health, along with social pressures, and worries about debt and entering the graduate jobs market. On top of this, a gradual erosion in stigma and increased awareness among young people mean more are willing to come forward to seek support, with fewer choosing to suffer in silence.
But where support is not available, or university staff do not identify those who are struggling, students’ ability to reach their potential is put at risk. A record number of students with mental health problems dropped out of university in 2014/15, which risks damaging their own career prospects and represents lost public investment. And 2015 saw 134 student die by suicide, a higher number than at any point over the past fifteen years.
As a result, universities are reporting significant increases in demand for mental health support from students. 94 per cent of universities report seeing increased demand for counselling services over the past five years, with two thirds seeing demand go up by more than 25 per cent.
For the past several years, groups such as the National Union of Students (NUS) have consistently argued that universities need to do more to help improve student mental health. Our research identified numerous examples of good practice from across the sector, where universities are looking to find innovative ways to meet this growing demand. However, it is clear that many remain way behind the curve.
There are, though, positive signs that the sector is beginning to grasp the challenge in a more systematic way. This week, Universities UK launched its new #stepchange framework, intended to be the first step towards universities adopting mental health and wellbeing as a strategic priority.
Universities should commit to develop their own approaches – based on student engagement, prevention, early intervention, support and referral into specialist care – and increase the amount of funding set aside for counselling and other initiatives.
But this will not be enough on its own. Government and the NHS must also do more to protect and promote students’ mental health. As a first step, a forthcoming government green paper should identify students’ particular mental health needs and set out solutions. This could include, for example, the creation of a new Digital Student Health Passport to ensure that students’ mental health care is joined-up across services, and that support does not fall away when students move between home and university.
The May government has so far talked a good talk on mental health, but is not yet clear how this will translate to improved support for students. Brexit is bringing new urgency to questions about what kind of society we want to be. To thrive outside the EU, the UK will need an educated workforce – but also a workforce that is healthy, happy and resilient.