In July I chaired the 'Advancing Student Wellbeing in 2024' panel session, the next in our Students First series and unique in its lineup of two senior university leaders alongside two unique student representatives.
Some of the key themes that emerged from the conversation were the importance of peer interactions, the need for holistic support systems, the role that institutions can play in advancing student wellbeing and the best ways to communicate about that, and the impact of technology on students' mental health.
The panel consisted of Professor Kylie Readman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Education and Students) at UTS; Scott Pearsall, University Registrar, Division of Student Administration & Academic Services at The Australian National University; Samantha Urquhart, final year Bachelor of Business / Bachelor of Law student at UTS and President of ActivateUTS; and Kirsten Wachter, Bachelor of Speech & Language Therapy with Honours fourth year student at Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The session commenced with an open-ended question to the students: what's it like to be a student, in 2023? They gave different answers with different emphases. Samantha (Sammy) talked about the challenges facing students, whether financial, time management, or new technology developments in AI. Kirsten talked about the exciting opportunities afforded students at this moment in time, and how every year had looked different for her so far.
The scope of universities' duty of care
In response to this, I posed a question back to our senior academic leaders about what their institutions are doing to support student wellbeing. Prof Readman, who has worked in the student wellbeing space for some years, spoke about the scope and remit of universities when it comes to students' wellbeing - particularly in the post-COVID era we're inhabiting now. "I note that in the Accord interim report that was released last week, wellbeing is a huge part of that and they actually call out universities "duty of care",
which is language I'm used to from my role as a teacher educator and originally as a teacher. But the role that universities have to play in terms of students physical health, their mental health, their safety, the social relationships that they engage in. And if I take safety to mean, you know, students' cultural safety, psychological safety, physical safety and so on, there's a lot of work that universities do do in terms of very practically immediate concerns."
Scott Pearsall went on to add that while universities do currently provide a broad range and depth of services to support students, they still mostly require the student to seek them out and access them. "Universities, I think, are on a on an improvement pathway to be able to actually identify students who aren't travelling well in some courses where students are within the same cohort." He felt that with new legislation recently coming through around Workplace Health and Safety, and the onus on companies to care for staff wellbeing, that the higher education sector would not be far behind. "This will be something that we'll be expected to not only track and measure, but also demonstrate that we're working very hard in conjunction with our student bodies to try and make sure that we are being very active in supporting student wellbeing moving forward."
Students feel supported, but more could be done
Throwing it back to the student panelists, I asked about their impressions of how universities support students. Sammy spoke about the pillars of a students' wellbeing, and what the holistic picture of wellbeing looks like.
"it's almost this holistic wellbeing that we all need to be focusing on, and it's the focus on mental wellbeing, physical wellbeing, financial wellbeing and all these different things that interlink together to help actually make a student feel that they are well and able to succeed in their studies. If one pillar falls then it affects the others."
Kirsten mentioned a great example of wellbeing support being embedded or built-in to her course:
"in some of my lectures, before we start the learning aspect, they ask, "Hey, how are you guys doing?" Like really checking in. And I think that's really important just to have some of those conversations alongside the study that we do."
Both students talked about the impressive ways universities stepped up during the COVID period, and how that level of support should remain, as that is what students expect now. Sammy confirmed "...it is expected that that level of support we received in COVID does continue, not necessarily for any reason other than that we experienced it and we want it to keep going."
Co-designing care and curriculum
Both senior university leaders stressed the importance of working together with students to develop solutions and strategies around their wellbeing, and also raised the issue of staff wellbeing as intrinsically linked to student wellbeing. "When students experience wellbeing, a big part of that is because the staff experience wellbeing as well," said Prof Kylie Readman. She went on to explain that for staff working in a primary interface where a mental health concern might arise, that those people also need to be adequately supported, and should not be expected to perform additional roles like counselling or giving financial advice.
Scott Pearsall agreed, "...you need to have clear delineation between roles. Yes, everyone in the university, everyone is student-focussed and needs to work to support students, but what their actual role is and how deep they go in terms of that level of support needs to be clarified. And I do think that there's a risk with some staff being expected to do more than perhaps they're capable."
In terms of what students want, Scott Pearsall also had some thoughts about working together to achieve this:
"Students want to be respected and understood."
"I think that universities need to take the time to do that. ...there is a really important role for a student voice to be heard by universities and senior staff in universities. I don't think that students have probably ever had a greater role in university governance... And it's an opportunity that both the students and the universities need to seize, and to care for and grow and develop so that we can really make the most of those opportunities to hear student voice and to be able to reflect on on what we're hearing student needs are."
Prof Readman discussed how at her current institution UTS they have what is called a 'Student Partnership Agreement', which sets out the responsibilities of both parties (the students and the university), making it very clear that the endeavour for success must involve input from both.
Kirsten said that she has had some lecturers at the start of the semester ask, "What do you guys want to learn alongside this core curriculum?" She found this impactful because it made her feel as though she was engaged on a deeper level with the learning, rather than simply being told content. "I got to put a voice into what I'm learning. And if there was something I was passionate about that wasn't in the curriculum, I could say, Hey, I'd really be keen to learn this alongside that. And for me, I think that would be an important aspect of the student experience going forward and ensuring the students are being engaged in that way during their learning."
Peer connections grow wellbeing
We had a question from the audience around communicating with students. While the students spoke a little of 'inbox overload', they seemed more concerned by the fact that email generally is too cold of a channel for communication around wellbeing. Sammy in particular told us about how fun on-campus 'activations', can be facilitators for more important conversations. "Did you know we have this? Did you know that you can book an appointment with a counsellor here? How are you? And it's kind of those discrete kind of questions that catch you off-guard that make you really think, Oh, it's not as confronting to go and sign up and do something when you're speaking with a person about it, versus if you see an email that says we have wellbeing services here."
Prof Readman agreed; "Peer to peer interactions are so valuable, so important that for those students that do want to come on campus and have that fuller experience, that that's a really powerful indicator to students that student life is more than just attending the classes and passing the assessments. And that students can get as much out of it as they have time to put into it."
"...peer to peer interactions are so valuable"
Leveraging technology to promote wellbeing
Of course in 2023 no conversation about university life can avoid the topic of AI, and other emerging technologies and their impact on students, and learning. Sammy was forthcoming with her thoughts around how these emerging technologies might be used to assist student wellbeing:
"AI could be implemented by universities in the future, to kind of streamline administrative processes that can really be detrimental to student wellbeing and overwhelming and increase stress. So things like knowing what subjects you need to do next semester, when do you need to enrol into them? When does. Census Date come into effect? All these communications that we get, but in a more manageable form, like a chatbot. So if the university had a chatbot where you could type in, what subjects should I be doing next semester? And it tells you. 'I would prefer classes on Tuesday afternoon. Are there any classes on Tuesday afternoon?' And it will tell you. It just takes out all that time that goes towards more administrative matters could be dramatically shortened and made much more practical for students."
'you can have a thousand flowers blooming... but actually we need to bunch up those activities and present them to students in a beautiful bouquet rather than just expect them to walk through a field and figure out what's right for them.'
It makes sense when you think about the number of wellbeing services students need to navigate also, as Kylie Readman summarised: "That's where I think plethora of emails doesn't necessarily work and, and you can have a thousand flowers blooming. I've been thinking about this quite a lot. You know, at UTS people are so wanting to help, are so looking for ways to support students, but actually we need to bunch up those activities and present them to students in a in a beautiful bouquet rather than just expect them to walk through a field and figure out what's right for them."
This panel session highlighted some critical insights from academic leaders and students, commenting in tandem. From empathy and holistic support systems to institutional culture and technology, the discussion gave valuable perspectives on creating an environment that promotes student wellbeing. By embracing empathy, implementing holistic support systems, fostering an institutional culture that prioritises wellbeing for both staff and students, addressing the impact of technology, and using data to inform decision-making, we can advance student wellbeing and ensure that all students thrive in their educational journey.