‘Being seen as a number and not a person can have a huge impact’: A Bristol University parent speaks out

‘This is not about who is to blame but about how do we get this right’

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The article below was written to The Tab by a parent who has a child at the University of Bristol. They wish for the article to be anonymous.

I have a child at Bristol University and their experience is not dissimilar to that described an anonymous student. From a parent’s perspective, the degree of institutional indifference to a student’s general progress has been very disappointing.

Given the recent tragic events, it is, of course, evident that there must be more investment in mental health services and an improvement in both the availability and range of services to support students who are willing and able to ask for help. But I think there is a wider, systemic pastoral care problem which needs a proper debate, highlighted by the fact that a student can miss lectures for an entire term and there is no contact from the university, academic or otherwise. University growth has been massive but pastoral care services appear to have not kept pace.

Institutional indifference is a generous term in this context. Even for the most resilient young person, being a number and not a person can have a huge impact. Add into the mix social pressures, perhaps study worries or poor physical health, and the environment can quickly become toxic. Being largely invisible to the organisation that is invested with the job of helping you get a degree doesn’t exactly help. The thrill of independence can quickly be replaced by loneliness and anxiety if there is a sense that no one really cares how you are getting on.

This is not about who is to blame but about how do we get this right and I do think there is a widespread problem with pastoral care and engagement between student and university across the UK which needs to be urgently addressed. Yes students are adults, but they are also young people in transition and I think all universities should accept more responsibility and a greater duty of care for the general well being of students at their institution. An open, honest debate is needed about what that duty of care is, how it should be exercised and how all the interested parties – students, friends, academic and non academic staff and, dare I say it, even families – can work together to help ensure the student thrives during their time at university and, most importantly, is supported when things aren’t going so well.

It really does beggar belief that a student can fall off the grid and no one, absolutely no one, has any responsibility to find out why beyond an email or two.

What is also disappointing is how Bristol University has responded. Rather than open up that debate, accept with some humility that there are perhaps wider problems and make an effort to tailor their communication, what we have seen is institutional defensiveness, template emails and press statements. More money for mental health services is part of the answer but better engagement with students before it gets to crisis point is an important part of the solution.

I am not suggesting it is an easy debate and there are certainly no quick fixes but the higher education sector needs, urgently, to start thinking differently about how to make their relationship with students less transactional and more meaningful.

Sadly, just doing more of the same isn’t necessarily going to produce a different outcome here.

Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol, said: “I share the concern that this parent and our students and staff feel about mental health and wellbeing. It is the single biggest challenge the higher education sector faces, not just in the UK but I believe globally.

“Any student death has a profound impact on our whole community and hurts us all deeply. We know there is more to do here at Bristol. We need to take every step we can, and work with our students, our staff, the city and health partners to ensure our community is as safe and supportive as we can possibly make it.

“National mental health leads from the NHS and Public Health England are actively engaged in the planning and development of our whole of institution approach and our response to recent deaths and have been offering extensive support.

“We are implementing a whole institution approach to supporting student mental health and wellbeing with major investment to support student wellbeing in our academic schools, in our central services, and in halls of residence.

“We have been engaging with our students and staff to seek their input into these plans and will continue to work with them to see where further improvements can be made right now and for the longer term.

“However, as this parent points out, there is no quick fix to this problem but for us to get ahead of the issue we need to reach out to help our students rather than wait to be asked for that help. We are putting in place a structure of preventative services and policies that will avoid our students reaching crisis point.

“In the short-term we are providing a variety of additional support for our students which includes: Running daily drop-in sessions from next week with the Students' Union. Run jointly with specialist mental health charities, these sessions offer support and a safe place to chat, increasing counselling available this academic term – we have provided more than 1,800 additional hours so far and offering an extensive range of free exercise and wellbeing classes including free swimming and running exam and stress workshops.”