Emotional and Mental Wellbeing in UK Higher Education

Dr Laura Hyman, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Portsmouth


Student wellbeing and happiness have become increasingly visible and significant in UK higher education in recent years. Not only has it become something that universities increasingly attend to and seek to facilitate, but it is also something that now appears to be diminished for many students. The reasons for this are manifold; however, one key explanation may lie in the marketization that has taken place in higher education in recent years. Ever since tuition fees were introduced in the 1990s, the position of the student has been paralleled with that of the consumer, and tertiary education with that of a service. Students, then, develop expectations of the ‘service’ that they should receive from their institutions in exchange for their fees; and, since these rose to upwards of £9,000 per year in 2012, such expectations are arguably higher than ever before. It could be said that students are now paying for an ‘experience’ (Williams, 2013) – and their feelings about this experience are of prime importance as universities seek to satisfy as well as educate them.

Whilst for many students, university is one of the happiest times of their lives, others have been found to experience poor emotional and mental wellbeing. This could be because their expectations of higher education do not match the reality; but it is also likely to be because most students are in high levels of debt, many are forced to take on paid work alongside their studies in order to survive financially and pressure to be seen to be ‘having a good time’ is stronger due to the presence of social media and other communications technologies. Furthermore, their job prospects for post-graduation are also less certain due to the condition of the economy and the higher numbers of other graduates with whom they must compete. As a result, mental illness diagnoses amongst the UK student body have increased steadily in the last ten years (Burns 2017).

Some sociologists, such as Furedi (2017) and Ecclestone and Hayes (2009) have responded to this critically, suggesting that one reason for such an increase is the rise of “therapeutic education”, in which students (and individuals more broadly) are more commonly regarded as vulnerable. Such as “turn” has promoted a “narrative that continually raises doubts about people’s emotional capacity to deal with physical and emotional harms.” (Furedi, 2017, p.21). However, others have praised such therapeutic practices, highlighting its importance in allowing increased recognition and acceptance of human emotional suffering (Wright, 2008).

Regardless of how one responds to this, it is fairly evident that the working lives of university staff have changed as a result. The numbers of support staff have steadily increased in recent years (although student counselling and wellbeing services are now oversubscribed, with many students on lengthy waiting lists – see Buchan 2018 for discussion of this). Academic staff with pastoral responsibilities are also finding themselves discussing emotional wellbeing and mental health issues with their tutees on a more frequent basis than ever before, despite the fact that the vast majority are not trained in this area. So, how have this latter group responded to this so-called wellbeing “crisis” that students are witnessing? And, more importantly, how do universities attend to staff wellbeing when an increasing amount of their jobs involve attending to that of their students? Evidence shows that, at many institutions in the UK, staff wellbeing has been largely overlooked. Whilst several offer access to an external employee assistance programme that offers support over the telephone (Inge and Bhardwa, 2018), few provide anything in-house. This is despite the fact that a report by RAND Europe has highlighted that 37% of academic staff suffer from mental health problems (RAND Corporation, 2017), which may be exacerbated by increased pressures to obtain research funding and to provide teaching “excellence”, job insecurity for those on fixed-term and hourly-paid contracts, and a more general expectation on the part of academics themselves to maintain excessively high standards that are often required by the profession. Perhaps it is this very culture of high standards that also renders academics reluctant to seek help for their health problems (Inge and Bhardwa, 2018); as any admission of weakness would immediately prevent them from achieving the perfectionism and “excellence” needed to do their jobs well.

So, what must be done for student and staff wellbeing? Ultimately, this post has raised more questions than answers. However, it is evident that more investment is needed in both student and staff support. Furthermore, more research must also be done in order to understand how poor wellbeing is perceived and managed both by individuals and institutions.