The government today has announced that it will offer commendations to universities if they invest in student mental health services, but the scale of its commitment has been called into question by the National Union of Students (NUS) – which is working in partnership with the government on the plan.
The new university mental health charter, launched by the Department for Education, will be developed this autumn by mental health charity Student Minds to "recognise and reward" institutions that prioritise and improve their approach to mental health.
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah, who announced the scheme, told BuzzFeed News that mental health should be a "top priority for every vice chancellor". Institutions across the UK will be able to opt in, and will be assessed on a range of criteria, from signposting services and offering advice to providing diagnosis and treatment.
However, funding for the project comes to just £100,000, donated by the University Partnerships Programme Foundation, a private charity. Izzy Lenga, vice president for welfare for the NUS and one of the bodies working in partnership with the government to develop the charter, said that while the new measures are a good first step, the NUS wants to see further action.
"This is a start, and it’s a step in the right direction," she said. "I don’t think that the issue of student mental health is going to be solved by £100,000, I think it’s actually a deep, embedded issue within higher and further education as a whole."
When asked whether the government would consider funding projects in the future, Gyimah told BuzzFeed News that the Department for Education needs data from universities – which institutions will collect when they sign up to the charter – before further action is taken.
"The first thing is to actually understand what the current services are and what costs that implies ... because then you understand the problem, and then you understand what needs funding," he said.
"There might be certain solutions that you can develop, certainly on the prevention side, that do not require huge amounts of funding. It may be that universities are spending quite a lot of money but not in the right way," he added.
But Lenga said: "What we need to see from the government ... is actual action with their commitment to mental health. The Prime Minister says that mental health is top of the agenda for the Tories, but actually what we’re seeing is action that’s not living up to that comment."
One in four of the 2.3 million students in the UK suffer from mental health problems, according to research by Student Minds. Around 75% of mental illnesses first arise before the age of 24, according to Universities UK, making university campuses a key place to prevent problems before they occur.
Mental health on campus has been thrown into the spotlight following a recent spate of student suicides, particularly at Bristol University, where seven students took their own lives in 18 months. Figures released this week revealed that 95 student suicides were recorded from July 2016 to July 2017, compared to 52 recorded in the same period from 2000 to 2001.
In addition to the charter, the Department for Education will conduct a review into how universities can support students in their first year, which can be a difficult period that can spark mental health complications. It will also assess links between NHS mental health services and universities, and look into an opt-in scheme to allow students' information to be shared with parents or other nominated people.
Gyimah said that the government is not at the stage of financing projects in universities yet, and that it is "down to them".
"If universities don’t step up to the plate on this they risk failing a generation of young people," he said.
For Lenga, putting the onus on universities is like "dodging a bullet".
"Putting that responsibility onto universities [to fund their mental health services] can be quite worrying for students because we’ve seen them not stepping up to the mark as we would like them to," she said.
She wants the government to introduce minimum standards of pastoral provisions as proof of their commitment to tackling the problem. Increased student numbers in recent years has put many university support services under strain, adding pressure to an already inconsistent quality and range of services across the board.
Rachel Piper, Policy Manager at Student Minds, said that the charter will recognise the wide range of needs and circumstances across UK universities and will take a "banded approach" to measuring their services, rather than requiring minimum standards.
"It will operate on different levels and allow universities to step from where they are to where they could be," she said. "It's about meeting universities where they’re at, and encouraging them to have good practice."
She welcomed the work that the government has done in partnership with Student Minds but acknowledged that it is a very complex issue and that there was more work to be done.
"It’s a grant to start the development process, and beyond this generous start-up grant, Student Minds will be welcoming additional partners and funders in order to scale the programme," she said.
Gordon Marsden, the shadow minister for higher education, told BuzzFeed News that the government must work closely with student representatives to tackle this issue.
“We have serious concerns about the lack of detail in today’s announcement, although steps to address student mental health issues are of course welcome," he said.
“If this government really believes in the importance of student mental health, they should be investing in it directly rather than simply relying on grants from outside organisations.”