4 key themes from the OfS Improving Student Lives event

“All students, from all backgrounds, should receive a high quality academic experience, and their interests should be protected while they study.” This is the second objective of the Office for Students (OfS). It was also the motivation for the OfS’s recent event: ‘Improving Student Lives: Hate crime, harassment and mental health in higher education’.

Focusing on the student experience, the objective contributes to the OfS’s overarching aim. This is that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.

Improving Student Lives Insight Event: Hate crime, harassment and mental health in higher education


The Improving Student Lives Insight Event was held on Wednesday 6th November in London. We went along to listen and join in with the conversation.

The event was split into two sections, each focusing on a different, important issue:

• Mental health: a campus or community challenge?
• Hate and harassment: how do we stop it?


Four Key Themes for Improving Student Lives


1. A whole institution approach is required

In her welcome address, Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the Office for Students, claimed that a whole institution approach is needed to address mental health and harassment issues within universities.

She said: “Mental health and harassment should be firmly on the agenda for every college and university in the country.” With this, it’s important to realise that both have unique challenges and require a separate response. Regarding ‘mental health’, the phrase covers everything from severe and diagnosed conditions to the stress and anxiety that most of us experience from time to time.

Katie Tyrell, a PhD student at the University of Suffolk, who is researching how HE students use technology within their everyday relationships, agreed. In her talk, she said: “Mental health is everyone’s responsibility.”

“It is a community responsibility to look out for students and staff who need support and are in distress.”

Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor, University of Lincoln

2. Mental health is fluid

In his keynote, Paul Farmer, Chief Executive at Mind, spoke about the three moveable spaces of mental health. These are:

• Thriving – you are generally feeling ok
• Struggling – you feel that life is not on your side
• Not well – you are experiencing a mental health problem (often this will become one of the biggest priorities of your life to address)

According to Paul, ¼ of us experience a mental health problem each year. It’s important to remember that any of us, at any time, can shift from one space to another. Throughout our lives, we will likely spend periods in all three. We’ll also move between them in no particular order.

This should be taken into account when it comes to supporting students with their mental health. Ideally, institutions will incorporate follow-up and ongoing support as part of their approach.


3. A university’s key asset is its people

The importance of a university’s community was discussed consistently throughout the day. As Peter Francis, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Northumbria University, put it: “Institutions have one key asset – and that’s people.” This includes both students and staff. For a university to function successfully, its students and staff must be strong, resilient and feel supported by the community.

Peter talked about how, ideally, every student should have a personalised wellbeing plan. This would include both mental and physical aspects. They’d be given the plan when they join the institution. It would span the entire three years of their study. Paul’s suggestion was agreed by Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Lincoln. Although Mary said that, preferably, this would be a wellbeing framework that multiple members of the community have contributed to. Including existing students and staff.

Peter went on to explain how Northumbria University is working hard to develop strong, coherent and lasting relationships with its students. By sending personalised emails to segments of confirmed students, they are building these relationships before students even commence their studies. As such, Northumbria’s students feel supported by their university from the start.

““Universities need an engaged and empowered student body that acknowledges wellbeing is a fluid continuum.””

Peter Francis, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Northumbria University

4. Institutions are forgetting to take a preventative approach

Osama Khan, the newly appointed Vice-Provost Education at the University of Surrey, spoke about how universities are neglecting to take a preventative approach to issues around mental health, hate crime and harassment.

He said: “As universities, we are in the very business of education. Yet, we are often dealing with these issues from a deficit model. We are forgetting that a preventative approach, starting with education, is perhaps the best way to address them.”

Piers Wilkinson, Disabled Students’ Officer at the NUS, argued that at age 18, it is too late to educate students on such issues. He said that, by this age, it’s likely the biases that can lead to discrimination are already embedded. The rest of the panel didn’t agree entirely. They too advocated that prevention of mental health issues, hate crime and harassment at university should be ingrained at primary and secondary stage. Yet, they also felt universities could do more to bring these issues to the forefront and work to prevent, rather than just react, to them.

Using education to take a preventative approach to combating issues on campus is a vital suggestion for the sector to consider. We asked Osama Khan to follow-up on his initial comment, to which he said:

“We are privileged to have the opportunity to transform lives through education in the university sector. We exist to think on behalf of the society, push the boundaries of knowledge through our research and inform our teaching with our research to provide an education that helps our students to be better citizens.

When we speak about hate crime, sexual misconduct and racism on campus, too often we tend to focus predominately on punitive arrangements and disciplinary procedures. It is important that our campus community feels safe and empowered to report their feelings and know that unfortunate experiences are dealt with supportively and at speed. We also need to align our thinking on these matters with the core mission of universities – in other words, education. We need to educate our students around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), about consent, equip them with intellectual resilience to deal with differences and to be respectful to human and environmental dignity. Disciplinary procedures, policing and speedy enforcement alone will not create safer campuses. It is by proactively educating our students on EDI, relationships and sustainability that we will create thriving campus communities. Let’s aim to embed this thinking in our curriculum, let’s prepare our students for a safer, more sustainable future where human and environmental dignity are paramount. Let’s transform the campus community through education.”

Mental health: Are all students being properly supported?

In advance to the Improving Student Lives event, the OfS published an insight paper about the topics discussed on the day. This is titled ‘Mental health: Are all students being properly supported?’ We’ll be posting a summary of the paper in part two of this blog series, which will follow soon.

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Enlitened and the Office for Students

Enlitened is proud to be part of the OfS’s Welfare and Safeguarding Expert Advisory Panel. As such, we are working with the relevant OfS departments regarding the current National Student Survey (NSS) question review. We will be remaining close to the consultation and the development of the new wellbeing and mental health questions within the NSS.

We are also working alongside Northumbria University as a partner in one of 10 projects supported by the OfS Challenge Competition. The competition aims to achieve a step change in mental health outcomes for all students. Read more here.