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‘I have full confidence in management’: An interview with Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady on mental health at Bristol

‘You understand why there’s so much gloom and worry within the institution’


Following the recent news of three student deaths within a fortnight, Bristol University Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady agreed to be interviewed by The Tab on the subject of mental health services and pastoral care at the institution.

Ten Bristol students are believed to have taken their own lives since September 2016, with the University announcing this month it planned to contact the parents of struggling students to combat this. A 'March for Mental Health Services' is set to be held this evening to demand 'real change' from the University management.

At the outset of the forty-five-minute interview, Professor Brady expressed his sympathy for the students who had died and said that the last month represented one of the bleakest moments in the university's history. "I’ve only been here for three years but I’m sure there will be very few times in our history when we’ve had that number. Each individually is a tragedy but put them together and you understand why there’s so much gloom and worry within the institution."

Senate House, in which the office of the Vice Chancellor is based

Commenting that "it’s a really difficult time for people and particularly a time with exams and other stresses in the world", Professor Brady defended Bristol's record on mental health provision, pointing out the university this term alone was "increasing the size of the GP service", "putting in 2,000 extra counselling hours", and "increasing the provision of extended time period for students with mental health where the traditional ten minutes is not enough". This is all alongside greater provision for urgent cases which need to be seen the same day.

According to the Vice Chancellor, the debate is not so much about more money as how that money is spent. Brady told The Tab Bristol: "I think what’s as important as care pathways, is how they’re co-ordinated because you can throw a lot more money at it but if the pathways aren’t clear, if there isn’t a clear delineation of who and what is qualified to provide what level of provision" then the problem can often failed to be adequately resolved.

Asked if current levels of investment were keeping up with inflation and the rising student numbers, Brady replied: "I think how we monitor it is not so much related to student numbers and inflation, however are we keeping up with demand, particularly around those urgent cases."

He noted that whilst there were significant long-term issues involved in tackling mental health, in some areas the university had made progress, citing the "very significant inroads" on early detection, and the "massive jump" on sport, exercise and health participation rates. "I think we can’t take anything in isolation, we need to monitor all of these and if something’s not working, we change it. If something’s not working and we need more investment, we have to make more investment", Brady added.

The VC argued that the SU was the best forum for students to be heard

Asked about a recent Tab article in which a student wrote that they had not been to class all term and suggested that a centralised attendance register be introduced to flag up warning signs, Professor Brady said it had been considered but required a conversation with students to be introduced. He said: "That’s an interesting discussion to be had with the student body next year. If we’re to bring in such a policy that would really change the nature of our university and I think that students would really need to be part of that conversation".

Pressed on whether students really felt part of the ongoing conversation, Brady claimed that existing structures such as the Students' Union, student representatives on Senate and the faculty and school structure were already in place to facilitate this. "The more meaningful conversation for me is how do we better use those established structures to talk about the really important issues affecting students."

Asserting that "the Students’ Union is the ideal body to hold those conversations with", and that "they seem to in most instances have their finger on the pulse- it varies from year to year", Professor Brady acknowledged the difficulties with the annual election of new sabbatical officers but said it was the best form of representation. "I always think it’s difficult when students come in, it’s such a short term. A little happens, you know the cycle, and then it’s election time again. But I think it’s much better, they have been elected by the student body, let’s make that work."

In response to the question of whether Bristol students should have faith in their SU to represent their concerns adequately to the university management, Professor Brady responded simply "I think that would be the optimum, yes."

The interview then turned to Professor Brady's recent email to all Bristol students in which the Vice-Chancellor wrote: "All University staff will also be very happy to help you or point you towards someone else who can provide help."

Asked about a tweet in which a Teaching Support Assistant at Bristol posted this email and stated: "I am university staff (as well as being a student) and I am not happy to help you because I do not have the skills or training", Professor Brady told The Tab Bristol: "Doesn’t that speak to why there is a need to have the Student Wellbeing Advisers within schools? So there’s somebody identifiable as part of her induction into the institution that she is aware who that person is and what they are for."

Professor Brady claimed the Student Wellbeing Advisers were on track to be recruited on time and said "there is great urgency" in the university's approach but "there are the normal HR constraints."

"Overwhelmingly the thing that we’re getting from personal tutors is there’s a certain level of mental health support they can provide but they need professional services staff beside them, again going back to why these roles are so important". In response to the current climate, Bristol has additionally increased the availability for staff counselling.

Professor Brady has served as Vice Chancellor since September 2015

At the close of the interview, Professor Brady was asked if he had anything to say to the 24,000 students in the Bristol student body, many of whom would likely be feeling angry or upset at the recent news and the university's response. The Vice Chancellor replied: "The issue of mental health and wider pastoral care supports, this is for us the priority issue. And I can see it being the priority issue in the foreseeable future."

Brady continued: "We will be doing much more again to try and make sure that all students are aware of those investments and reconfigurations to services where that’s taken place, and why we’re doing it. But I will say, as importantly, they’re going to have really important things to say and really important ideas around, for example, what I think is still at the root of that really worrying trend that we’ve just talked about, that’s social media. Who best knows that area than the student body?"

Asked finally whether he had full confidence in the senior management team involved in these issues, Professor Brady answered: "I certainly have confidence in the management team. Any student deaths in particular death by suicide is a tragedy and where you have a number of deaths in quick succession, clearly what we need to do is to look into them".

He ended by saying: "It’s beholden on us to make every effort we can to try and contribute to that knowledge base which ultimately has the potential to lead to early intervention, early identification of risks, early intervention and prevention."