Supporting Student Wellbeing in Higher Education: Why & How

10854314_mlThis week I was asked by the Guardian to provide some comments on the roles lecturers and universities play in student wellbeing. How, if at all, do lecturers support their students’ wellbeing and are universities any good at providing relevant support services? These are some of the questions Claire Shaw, deputy editor of the Guardian Higher Education Network, asked me, and it seems apt to devote a few more lines to them here, not least because pastoral care forms an important part of my role at LJMU and because I received amazing, much needed support as a undergraduate.

So this is an extension to the comments of mine that Claire quoted in her article “How Academics Can Help Ensure Students’ Wellbeing”, which also includes valuable points of advice by other academics and support staff, including Dr Martin Eve.

For many of us, pastoral responsibilities form a significant part of our role, but it’s a difficult area that is laden with workload issues as well as ethical problems and questions surrounding what exactly we’re qualified to deal with as teaching professionals in higher education. So this post, then, is a short (and inevitably incomplete) exploration of how these issues impact on lecturers’ ability to support students’ wellbeing, and it also offers a brief summary of what I feel makes for good pastoral support, especially at undergraduate level.

As always, what I write here comes from my own and colleagues’ and friends’ experiences of different institutions. It’s therefore a snapshot at best, and I urge you to share your views on the topic in the comments section, on social media, or by emailing me directly. I’d love to hear if your university or department have come close to solving the issues described below, and – if so – how!


The Benefits of Supporting Student Wellbeing

books-1024-768-wallpaperTo me, supporting students’ wellbeing through pastoral care is key to making higher education a more inclusive environment in which people from all kinds of backgrounds and circumstances can have a chance to succeed. We often (and rightly) focus on how to increase access to higher education and how to diversify the student body, particularly when it comes to universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, but perhaps not quite as much public discussion (if lots of research) is dedicated to how to make sure students are adequately supported once they have actually begun their undergraduate course. Personal tutoring (which I’m going to treat as a synonym for pastoral support here) is key to this because it allows us not only to help students adjust to their new environment but at its best it also means we become aware of their needs and how they may be more adequately addressed on a bigger scale, in the classroom and at university level. If we want higher education to be an inclusive environment, lecturers and institutions have to be willing to provide the support to those whose circumstances mean a greater struggle with the system, be they carers, single parents, or students with disabilities, chronic illness, mental health or money problems.

But even for those who suffer from temporary or unexpected difficulties, pastoral care can ensure that we give them the best possible chance to succeed in their degree and give them personal life skills that will help them cope in the future. After all, facilitating student learning is indisputably a key part of our duty, and it would be naive to believe that this responsibility ceases once we leave our lectures, seminars, and virtual classrooms. Teaching, at any level, is intensely personal by nature and I very much doubt whether those who do not have a personal as well as professional investment in their students’ success make for very good teachers. For some students, advising on further reading and providing essay guidance is as much as we need to do to support them in their degree; for many others, though, there are those unexpected minor or major glitches, or permanent circumstances that mean they require our proactive help to support their wellbeing, not only as a matter of principle but also to make sure they academically remain, as much as possible, on an equal footing with everyone else.


Workload Issues & Emotional Labour

4841008_m(1)Seeing and emailing your students regularly obviously adds to your schedule of commitments. The best personal tutoring systems will divide the numbers of tutees equally among staff and try, as best as possible, to factor the time dedicated to pastoral care into staff timetables. The reality, however, is that increasing student numbers and workloads as well as budget cuts and student-staff ratios make this extremely difficult. In addition, the most common problem across many universities and departments seems to be that, even if lecturers are allocated equal numbers of students, some will always be more dedicated to their pastoral duties than others and will hence inevitably pick up those left behind by less reliable or invested colleagues, a scenario that of course also famously applies to administrative duties. A set of agreed practices and rules – such as one personal tutor meeting a semester for each student – can sometimes help at least a little, here, but of course won’t remedy the problem.

It also seems to me that, as in many other professions, in academia we still have to be mindful that women often take on the vast majority of emotional labour, which includes pastoral care. This is much more true for some subjects and institutions than others, of course, but it’s certainly a factor that needs to be taken into consideration if we want to implement effective ways of supporting students’ wellbeing.


University Services, Structures, & Training

19263517_lKey to supporting student wellbeing is shared responsibility and an effective use of expertise and resources. Many universities have student and staff counselling services with walk-in hours, hardship funds and student finance advisers, as well as daycare and student medical centres. The quality of these services unfortunately differs from institution to institution, but it is key that academics know how and are able to refer students to these respective support structures, not least because much of what they provide falls completely outside of our professional expertise, ability, and comfort zone. Indeed, while pastoral care is an integral part of many undergraduate programmes, what seems surprisingly neglected in the vast majority of institutions is training for those who are expected to provide that care. This is not to suggest that there is one correct way to approach personal tutoring, but it’s astonishing that the very basics seem to be completely taken for granted, leaving especially junior staff to make things up as they go along, and leaving students with little realistic sense of what kind of help their lecturers can and can’t, or should and shouldn’t, be able to provide them. There are small, everyday issues that are simple enough to address. Not everyone, however, is equipped with the knowledge or intuition to identify when a student may be suffering with mental health issues, or indeed with the skills to appropriately react when students confess they are struggling with debt, depression, anxiety, or have had a traumatic experience. Too much of this is left to “those who deal with these kinds of things”, and to chance.


My Strategies

I think it’s quite obvious that the relationships between lecturers and students can different significantly between disciplines and institutions; some are more hierarchical than others, some have larger student bodies, and many have very different student demographics from one another. Yet, it seems apt to finish this post by sharing my own main strategies for supporting student wellbeing in my role as a lecturer in the arts and humanities. As always, please share your own!

Be Approachable & Non-Judgmental

20936421_mlEnsure your students know they can approach you if they encounter any problems with which they require help, and let them know that there are also other members of staff they can speak to if they prefer. My blog has sometimes helped with this. I’ve had lots of comments and emails from students about my more personal posts about anxiety, and many have said it was a relief to know that there was someone who definitely wouldn’t judge them if they talked about their mental health issues. If you notice chronic absence from class, ask students if there are any problems you should know about. Don’t presume anything; especially if you haven’t taught a student before, you often don’t know what their background is or what issues they may be battling. It’s easy to label students as lazy, not committed enough, or unreliable. It’s harder, and requires effort on your part, to find out why they’re missing classes or aren’t performing as well as they could. We all get fed up sometimes when reading hasn’t been done, an essay wasn’t handed in, or an appointment missed. Remind yourself that these things usually don’t happen out of malice.

Be Practical & Proactive

12895304_mlThink practically about how you can help: it’s actually of very little use to your students if you dwell on how much you pity them, or tell them how devastated you are by their circumstances or news. Some may be just fine once they’ve got something off their chest, others may need you to help them get back on track. Ultimately, you may not be able to solve their problems or change their circumstances, but you can make them leave your office a little less worried, with the feeling that there’s a way forward, and that there is help available. Little things can make a huge difference to students who are experiencing issues: a brief discussion of how to organise their upcoming deadlines, short-term meetings and tasks to check on their progress and wellbeing; offering to contact other lecturers whose assignments the student may not be able to hand in on time, or whose modules the student may not be able to attend for a certain period. Always be aware of confidentiality issues: don’t send an email to the entire department explaining your student’s situation in detail; it’s a breach of confidence if they haven’t given you consent to do so, and most of the time it should be sufficient if you tell colleagues that a student is experiencing difficult circumstances. Telling your student that you will speak to other lecturers on their behalf about deadlines and further support can really make a difference, not least because – depending on their situation – no one wants to have explain a personal issue repeatedly to different people.

Know Your Limits

Know your limits and responsibilities and know what support services are available at your university. There are people trained to help students with whatever their issue is, so make sure you can provide a confident plan of action which includes not just you but also those who can offer support outside the student’s academic life, where required. If a student has mental health issues, you can help them put their reading and deadlines into perspective and make them more achievable, or give them confidence by talking through their ideas. What you can’t do is offer counselling, advice on medication, or help them deal with their issues long-term or outside your professional realm. Try to identify with them what services may be suitable for them follow up on whether they’ve managed to contact them.

Set Realistic Expectations

30281883_mlDon’t be consumed by your students’ problems. It is easy to lead students into relying on your support permanently and excessively, something which neither helps your nor their wellbeing. You can help them deal with things, but you can’t deal with their problems for them. You can provide a temporary swimming aid, but ultimately they still have to learn to swim. (Other flawed analogies most welcome!) It’s easy to be overwhelmed with sympathy and worry for your students, especially if their circumstances are extremely serious. Remember that what you’re doing is best: you’re providing proactive help that will keep them afloat academically and will put their mind at ease, and you are ensuring they receive external help if needed. Rest assured that this is all you can do without risking your own mental health and wellbeing, both of which are key to you providing the best help.

Lead by Example

If you want to support your students’ wellbeing, you must also take care of your own. You often have to help them put things into perspective when everything just seems to get too much. And of course one thing many academics are particularly bad at is maintaining some sort of perspective on work, life, and everything in-between and beyond. The demands on us often don’t make it easy to be good role models when it comes to wellbeing, and it can be difficult to help students’ look after their wellbeing if we can’t take care of our own.