Robert Halfon UUK Mental Health conference speech

Higher Education Minister Robert Halfon delivered a speech at the Universities UK conference on mental health in higher education in London on 21 November 2023

The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP

Thank you, Edward (Peck), and to Universities UK for the opportunity to speak at this important conference.

The World Health Organisation defines good mental health as:

‘a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community’

Every single part of that definition has relevance to students’ time at university. But particularly having sufficient mental wellbeing to realise their abilities and learn well.

Students cannot fulfil their potential, and study for a degree on which to build future success, if their wellbeing is unsupported. Mental ill health is not something students should be expected to push through or attempt to ignore – because we all know that can lead to tragic consequences. Today is about confronting this - and examining what more can be done to help students thrive.

I’d like to begin by paying tribute to all the student services staff who work on the frontline, day in, day out, to support students. You are there for them on their hardest days at university. You strive to help them find a way through. You do it because you care - because you want the best for your students.

You, more than anyone, will be aware that increasing numbers of students are needing support.

In 2022, 23% more students declared mental health conditions when they applied through UCAS. It takes bravery to ‘own up’ to an ongoing mental health issue when you’re about to embark on a new stage of your life, hoping to make new friends, and perhaps even present a new version of yourself. We need to reward this bravery by ensuring the support is there when they arrive at university.

So on an individual level, mental health support for students is important for their personal academic success.

But I think it’s important on a societal level too. I see mental health not just as a personal issue, but a matter of social justice. It’s about making sure the opportunity to enter, thrive and graduate from university is open to everyone with the ability to do so.

We know that today poor mental health reduces the chance of progressing to a graduate job or further study. This shouldn’t be the case. No one should be held back from achieving in higher education because of their background or personal challenges. When we create the right conditions for good mental health, we are in turn allowing students to climb the Ladder of Opportunity to sustainable employment and prosperity.

This is clear progress. But I know you don’t want to sit back and rest on your laurels, and that is why you are here today.

Because we have all been deeply affected by the loss of bright, capable and loved young people to suicide at university.

And we owe it to the memories of those we have lost to take strong and effective action to prevent further tragedies.  

In my year as Minister for Higher Education I have made this an absolute priority. There are 3 pillars to our approach:

Funding vital services and projects; spreading and implementing best practice; and clear responsibilities for providers and protection for students.

The first pillar is about investing in the wellbeing of students.

To provide nationwide access to free mental health resources and confidential support, we provided Student Minds with £3.6 million to set up Student Space. Over 450,000 students have now benefitted from this service, including those who recently braved the “freshers” experience.

Those early stages of university life bring new opportunities, but also new responsibilities, and the transition isn’t always easy. We are backing university wellbeing services to support these students as part of this year’s £15 million investment in mental health by the Office for Students (OfS).

Of course it’s not just about the level of investment, but about being clear-headed on which interventions will genuinely transform students’ lives. And that’s why the launch of TASO’s (Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education) Student Mental Health Evidence Hub last month couldn’t have been more timely. As part of our grant to the OfS, it’s the first step towards understanding ‘what really works’ in higher education settings so we can make timely and effective interventions to help students, rather than let problems escalate. You will hear more about this in the afternoon.

One thing you have told us needs to work better is the join-up between university services and the NHS. I want us to be in a position where a student comes into hospital, and the doctor already knows if that student has seen a university wellbeing officer.

That’s why the OfS has brought together higher education (HE) providers and NHS trusts across each region in England to address the challenges of joined-up working. It’s about having a single clear view of a student across universities and the NHS so they have a smooth experience of transitioning between services. The outputs of this work are due to be shared by the OfS in the coming weeks.

The NHS mental health care services that many students rely on are already benefitting from an additional £2.3 billion a year, through the NHS Long Term Plan.

And the government has gone further, with guaranteed increases through the Mental Health Investment Standard that have brought our total investment to nearly £16 billion in 2022/2023.

Our second pillar is about best practice.

We need to create the right conditions on campus for students to thrive through a whole-university approach to mental health. This means not just relying on student wellbeing services. It means everyone, from the Vice Chancellor down to the librarian takes responsibility for creating an environment and culture that supports positive mental health and wellbeing.

The principles for achieving this are laid out in the University Mental Health Charter. This importantly includes the principle that good staff wellbeing should be supported, recognising the challenges those in the room face on a day-to-day basis.

The associated Charter Programme supports providers to embed these important principles and follow a process of continuous improvement as they work towards the Charter Award. It is already raising standards within the sector.

Thanks to the hard work of university staff, and the backing of your leaders, you have delivered an incredible 50% increase in University Mental Health Charter Programme membership over the summer. We’re now at 96 universities, which is a big step - perhaps even a giant leap - closer to our target of all universities joining by September 2024.

This is the cornerstone of our plan to improve student mental health. I am fully committed to reaching the full target and providing support for the fantastic Student Minds to see it through.

We also owe a lot to Universities UK. By working closely with charities and experts, it has made great strides in recent years in developing clear mental health support frameworks. And I would like to pay tribute to John de Pury who has led the charge on mental health for UUK so valiantly and who I know is coming to the end of his time in post this week.

To capitalise on this progress, I wrote to university leaders in June to ask them to take ownership of mental health at an executive level. The sector needs to come together to finish the job of embedding the guidance that has been set out.

Just a reminder about why we need to do this – why it’s so important:

Callum Dineen wrote to me last month about the tragic case of his friend, Theo Brennan-Hulme, who took his life at the University of  East Anglia.

Callum had a simple ask:

That universities have clear information-sharing policies to protect students and prevent further tragedies, following the UUK Trusted Contacts guidance. That families are given the chance to step in and provide much needed help to their loved ones.

This was a powerful campaign, with strong support from cross-party MPs - which I wholeheartedly supported.

I now want to turn to the work of Professor Edward Peck, and take this opportunity to thank him for all the progress he has made since his appointment as HE Student Support Champion. This summer I asked Edward to build on that work and chair the Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce – a vehicle for delivering real change.

Firstly, the taskforce is developing a plan for effectively identifying students who need university wellbeing support, so no one falls through the cracks. This needs to include greater data sharing as students make the transition from schools or college to university. There is the opportunity here for exploring whether UCAS could widen the breadth and depth of information collected on mental health.

Secondly, the taskforce will ensure there is accountability and transparency around the adoption of best practice.

Thirdly, it will develop a ‘student commitment’, so that students are dealt with sensitively when they face course dismissal or receive difficult assignment results.

I was delighted to open the inaugural taskforce meeting in July. I saw common cause across a group bringing together different parts of the higher education sector, with Professor Steve West representing UUK, as well as health services, the charity sector, and – crucially – students and parents.

The recently appointed FE Support Champion, Polly Harrow, will shortly be invited to join the taskforce to ensure we are joining-up our approach across colleges and universities.

The taskforce will conclude its work in May next year, providing an interim update in early 2024.

In recent months I have had the privilege to speak directly to families who have lost loved ones to suicide. I have been humbled by their strength and determination to prevent further tragedies, whilst facing the most unimaginable pain and loss. We stand with these families.

This Government has pledged to reduce suicide rates within five years - with young people, including students, a priority group. We have set out over 100 actions to meet this pledge as part of our comprehensive Suicide Prevention Strategy.

This includes learning lessons from suicides that have occurred in universities. We will do this through a National Review of Higher Education Student Suicides.

We are looking to appoint an organisation with the expertise and track record to deliver this important review and we hope to announce further details very shortly.

I’m sure the sector will embrace this review as a positive endeavour to do better by students. Serious incident reviews will be submitted on an anonymised basis, using UUK’s postvention guidance template.

We have heard the heartfelt stories from families and friends who have lost loved ones. All eyes are now on those who have the power to make a real difference to students’ wellbeing.

I will be hosting a roundtable with HE leaders at Leeds Trinity University later this week to discuss how we can answer this call to action.

As I’ve said before, I am confident we have a strong plan in place, but I don’t rule out going further if needs be. If we do not see the improvements we need, I will not hesitate to ask the Office for Students to look at introducing a new registration condition on mental health.

Ultimately, we must do what it takes to provide the safety net that students and their loved ones expect and deserve as they embark on the amazing privilege of university life.

Department for Education
The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP