Universities
Image: Warwick Media Library

The road ahead for British universities

Equality, diversity and inclusion are three words that have been etched into my brain as a mantra for campus life since arriving at the University of Warwick less than a week ago. But what do these words mean? Whether you like it or not, every university in the UK has been working in recent years to improve their standards when it comes to these three criteria. While some are closer to achieving their goals than others, predictions for the future are looking bright – and these three little words are working up a storm at the level of Higher Education.

One of the most pressing issues for universities today is the problem of mental health. The mental health crisis affecting the UK is extremely pronounced amongst university students, with figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that in the last 10 years student suicide rates have risen by over 20%. In the next three years universities will be called on to dramatically improve their mental health programmes for students and staff, according to the Universities Minister Sam Gyimah. These demands will be outlined in the forthcoming University Mental Health Charter – a partnership program between leading mental health charities and Higher Education bodies working to develop new standards of student and staff support. Gyimah urges that to avoid “failing an entire generation of students”, universities should be prioritising greater mental health measures and adopting a strategy of “in loco parentis” with their student body. This strategy will prevent students from feeling intimidated, while providing them with the necessary support they need to withstand the pressures of university life.

One of the most pressing issues for universities today is the problem of mental health

Working in collaboration with the Universities Minister on the charter is the UK-based charity Student Minds. It aims to “break the stigma of mental health” by empowering members of the university community to develop the knowledge, confidence and skills needed to look after their own mental health, as well as training students and staff in universities across the UK to deliver student-led peer support interventions, research-driven workshops and campaigns. The issue of mental health should be a “strategic priority” for universities, according to Student Minds’ CEO Rosie Tressler. The charity is “delighted” to have the support of the UPP Foundation to co-create a charter which will reinforce the importance of a culturally competent support system and will improve the overall wellbeing of students and staff across the UK.

Changes such as these will continue to improve the situation of mental health and wellbeing at universities across the country. The University of Warwick has already made several developments in this area, with the Mental Health Team working to increase the accessibility of mental health support as well as providing a range of counselling services, Postgraduate workshops and contactable wellbeing advisors. Additionally, Warwick Sport has developed the Health and Wellbeing Outreach Programme which provides free ‘feel good’ classes, as well as working alongside the charity Student Minds last year to develop the University Mental Health Day – a day which spread awareness for mental health issues and promoted the importance of sustaining good wellbeing practices in our day to day lives.

Warwick Sport has developed the Health and Wellbeing Outreach Programme which provides free ‘feel good’ classes

Another common problem facing universities has been the lack of social mobility and diversity. Most recently, Oxbridge has been criticised after reports emerged that a quarter of Oxford colleges did not admit a single black British student between 2015 and 2017, and six of Cambridge’s colleges have admitted fewer than 10 black British students in the last five years. This data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Financial Times last month, reveals the lack of diversity in many of the UK’s top academic institutions.

Furthermore, their reluctance to reveal admissions data only adds to their culpability and makes clear the problem that ethnic minorities and students from underprivileged backgrounds are being discriminated against throughout the admissions process. According to David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, “there is so much work to do” before this disparity among universities is solved. He has also spoken of how “every university in the country should be publishing access and admissions data every year” if we are to have progress on access to our elite institutions for students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.

The University of Cambridge suggests that “more needs to be done to prepare high achieving black students for applications to Cambridge and Oxford”. This alludes to the lack of funding for schools in deprived areas, where there are often large ethic minority groups. To combat this, a report by the Scottish Funding Council urges universities to reduce entry grades for disadvantaged students. The council stated that “students in middle class areas are more likely to make top grades, due to parental help or private tuition”. Therefore, by lowering the standard grade requirements, students from underprivileged backgrounds are granted greater access to higher education, and universities are encouraged to take a more holistic approach to the admissions process itself. In terms of funding, the University of Cambridge intends to offer fully funded ‘debt-free’ studentships for some of its poorest students. Most recently, grime artist Stormzy has launched his self-entitled ‘Stormzy Scholarship’ – funding two black students to study at Cambridge for the entirety of their course. In an interview with BBC Breakfast, he said “if you’re academically brilliant don’t think because you come from a certain community that studying at one of the highest education institutions in the world isn’t possible”.

While Warwick does promote values of equality, diversity and inclusion, it is always important to devise new ways of boosting social mobility and accessibility to those unfairly treated by other academic institutions. Having submitted a three-year action plan to the Race Equality Charter (RECM), the university is working to improve the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students within higher education as well as campaigning for the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across the UK. Warwick follows a policy of transparency in its admissions process, having published student and staff statistic reports each year since 1980.

A quarter of Oxford colleges did not admit a single black British student between 2015 and 2017… and six of Cambridge’s colleges have admitted fewer than 10 black British students in the last five years

It is integral to university life that the voice of every student is heard. According to the 2017 National Student Survey, over 73% of students strongly agreed that a greater emphasis should be given to student-led decision-making at the university level. Since 2005, the NSS has helped over two million students make their voices heard about the issues that matter most to them. Thanks to this annual survey, these voices have helped bring about a significant change in higher education.  Each year at Warwick, the student body elects seven officers to act as representatives for the ‘student voice’.

From Education and Democracy to Societies and Sport, this team questions how much students feel able to give feedback on their university experience, how much they are listened to and whether their feedback has been acted upon. For example, universities and lecturers could change course content without consulting students that were already, or due, to start the course. Now, thanks to active discussions from student unions across the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been set up so that universities have contractual duties to inform students of any changes, and are not able to change course content without informing the relevant people. It is clear from this that the promotion of a collective ‘student voice’ is integral to a university’s success. By continuing to involve students in the decision-making process, universities will sustain a better working environment for their students and staff as well as providing a voice to those who need it the most.

Are we at Warwick doing enough to make sure that these three words remain a part of our agenda? It is undeniable that issues of mental health, social mobility and diversity are in need of improvement, but with these measures in place, the country’s academic institutions are on the right path for greater success.

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