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University rankings must rate wellbeing provision to stay relevant

Isolation and mental health issues are not new concerns for students, but the pandemic has brought them into sharp focus.


There is an obvious, unassailable link between wellbeing and academic success

So why are so many university rankings continuing to only focus on academic excellence? There is an obvious, unassailable link between wellbeing and academic success.

If league tables are to have continued relevance and enable informed decision making, they need to investigate performance across the whole student experience. And they must consult the right people – students.

The student voice is the only perspective that matters in the Studyportals’ Global Student Satisfaction Awards, where students give feedback on pastoral support along with other non-academic issues, which this year will include COVID crisis management and online learning.

Another recent Studyportals survey asked students how they want wellbeing support to be delivered. More than 75% of respondents preferred one-to-one support, signalling that universities will need a much higher level of resources.

A studybuddy is an easy way for students to talk through everyday things

During the pandemic almost 50% of students said that they hadn’t sought any help at all. This worrying statistic is in line with others that revealed a drop in support-seeking across the whole population, at a time when we’ve needed it the most.

So how can support transform to reach greater numbers? Ainslie Moore, Deputy Director of International Programmes and Partnerships at the University of Auckland – the Global Student Satisfaction Awards winner in the Diversity category in 2019 – found their existing Studybuddy programme invaluable.

She told us: “It’s an easy way for students to talk through everyday things, especially for international students, who pair up with a bilingual buddy. It serves as a low-key way to explore issues related to mental health once they feel comfortable, then we can layer in further support as needed.”

To connect with students who aren’t used to seeking help, universities need to circumvent a variety of reasons causing resistance.

Moore explains: “By labelling support as ‘health and wellbeing’ and constantly communicating availability, we were able to reach more students.

“They’re encouraged to assess wellbeing with activities such as yoga and meditation, allowing them to take responsibility for their own self-care without any stigma. From there, it’s easier to ask for further help if they need it.”

“By labelling support as ‘health and wellbeing’ and constantly communicating availability, we were able to reach more students”

How far are most universities from the ideal package of support?

Emily Shead has a unique three-way perspective on wellbeing provision afforded by student life, as a PR agency employee and as a founder of non-profit organisation, Academus.

“One of the biggest issues that university students face right now is the disconnect between themselves and their universities. Whilst universities outwardly project a duty of care, this often falls short of the mark,” she says.

“University wellbeing programmes are decentralised, disorganised and often ineffective. In short, they’re not fit for purpose and insufficient to protect students.”

Shead believes that for this situation to improve, universities need to start investing in large-scale welfare teams that can provide support to the entire student body.

At present, many personal tutors are given basic pastoral training, leaving them unequipped to deal with the full spectrum of issues.

“Support must be well-strategised rather than merged under the umbrella of ‘welfare services’,” Shead continues.

“If universities are clearly advertising the services they offer to students, they can bid for funding to provide the best care possible.”

Universities must work towards centralised support systems combined with innovative practices.

Then, it becomes easier to see how the education sector can build a safety net that contributes to the maintenance of good mental health throughout an individual’s lifetime.

Living in unprecedented, uncertain times it must be flexible, comprehensive support that can withstand anything the world throws at it.

There’s still time for universities to gather student feedback for this year’s Global Student Satisfaction Awards. Visit our site for more information and ready-to-share social media posts. The closing date for reviews is 31 August 2021.

About the author

This is a sponsored post from Cara Skikne, senior editor at Studyportals. She has an MBA from the University of Oxford, and a Journalism degree from Rhodes University in South Africa. She believes in making access to universities more inclusive, rather than exclusive, and see access to quality information for candidates as essential in this mission.


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