When 2 worlds collide: the growing overlap of mental health and digitalisation in Higher Education

When 2 worlds collide: the growing overlap of mental health and digitalisation in Higher Education

Student wellbeing and digital transformation are through necessity high on the agenda for universities and other education providers. Sarah Shaw, the partner who leads our Interim Education Practice, says these twin challenges are often intertwined.

The pandemic has had a widespread and highly negative impact on the mental wellbeing of young people. According to University Mental Health: Life in a Pandemic, a report by charity Student Minds, 74% of students consider Covid-19 to have had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing at university. An even higher number (82%) believe the pandemic has harmed their academic experience. 

It’s easy to understand why. Being cooped up in student accommodation – or perhaps worse, the family home – is hardly the socially enriching or academically stimulating ideal they would have hoped for. Two thirds often feel “isolated or lonely”, a shocking indication of the scale of the problem.

For many, the situation is compounded by money worries compounded by the difficulty of securing part-time work. Sectors such as hospitality and high street retail, the traditional mainstays of entry level employment, have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. As well as helping students fund years of studying, part time work can be beneficial in providing healthy interaction with other human beings. A restriction of opportunities has added to the feeling of lives in limbo.

Consequently, it is now essential for universities to offer students a high quality digital experience that is at once both efficient and human. Efficient in terms of meeting administrative needs and smooth access to online academic resources; human in replicating the face-to-face experience as closely as possible to engage, inspire and motivate.

The most go-ahead higher education institutions are ensuring students have access to content wherever they are, whenever they want it. A must so as not to disadvantage international students in far flung time zones but also highly convenient for the local student population that appreciates flexibility and the empowerment it offers. The option to pause and rewind online lectures has obvious advantages. But all the time it is essential to ensure the focus on digital learning does not leave students feeling fatigued from excessive screen time or disconnected from the real world. Providing an online space specifically for interaction between classmates is a practical solution for sharing, solving problems and team building.

Beyond learning resources, universities can also harness digital technology specifically to support student wellbeing. Ideally this should align with the University Mental Health Charter, a whole-university approach based on “adequately resourced, effective and accessible mental health services and proactive interventions.”

A growing number of universities now offer counselling, student advice services, support networks and other wellbeing resources online. Open University, which has been in the distance learning game since 1969, says it supports over 10,000 students who have a mental health difficulty of some kind. Students with a wellbeing problem can contact OU’s confidential peer support network through an online forum or via email or Facebook. It also has a partnership with clinically managed online community Togetherall, which works to improve mental health. A useful body for sharing best practice in this sensitive area is UMHAN, the University Mental Health Advisors Network. Going forward, it will be vital to ensure students with mental health problems are given easy and rapid access to support and receive the appropriate level of support for their needs.

Making mental health a priority in the context of digitalisation is right and proper. Universities in the know have already brought in external experts with high level skills in this area and seen vast improvements in the way they support students and other aspects of digital delivery.

UKRI’s new open access policy for providing research publications online, further signposts the march of digitalisation. On the administrative front, those universities that have robust systems in place for collecting student fees will be able to breathe far easier than those that don’t.

In today’s high stakes climate, in which wellbeing and digitalisation have become tightly interwoven, it is a case of getting there with the right talent - finding the round pegs for round holes. Those universities adept at doing this are navigating sensitive issues with aplomb.  

For more information, please contact Sarah Shaw.


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