Mental health in higher education – what needs to change?

Published 09/06/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

Students deserve a consistent standard of mental health support which meets the unique challenges they face. That was the central message from the Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee’s report following its inquiry on mental health support in higher education.

The Committee stressed that while going to university is an exciting and life-changing experience for many students, for others it can induce or exacerbate mental health struggles. In the context of the ongoing impact of the pandemic and cost of living crisis, the Committee says it’s more important than ever that students can access appropriate mental health support, to help them reach their full potential at university.

What is the current situation for students’ mental health?

The number of students saying they have a mental health condition has risen in recent years. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), the number of students declaring a mental health condition rose from 2,065 (1.6% of students) in 2014/15 to 6,245 (4.3% of students) in 2020/21. Students’ rates of happiness and life satisfaction are “consistently twice as bad … as the wider UK population”.

The Committee says that while we know that rates of mental health conditions are on the up, it’s also highly likely that available statistics underestimate the extent of the challenge as not all students will choose to declare their health condition. The Committee heard that tackling stigma and supporting students who need help to come forward, is central to understanding and addressing issues around student mental health.

In recent years, the Welsh Government and HEFCW have taken steps which aimed to improve support for students’ mental health in higher education. In 2019, HEFCW launched a Wellbeing and Health in Higher Education Policy Statement, and since 2020/21 the Welsh Government has provided annual funding (through HEFCW) in support of universities’ well-being and health strategies, and implementation plans. Welsh higher education providers must have a student charter that integrates mental health and well-being, and all Welsh universities are signed up to Universities UK’s Stepchange framework.

However, as concerns about student mental health concerns continued to be in the spotlight, stakeholders told the Committee there was still work to be done, particularly around the boundaries of the care that can be provided by universities and statutory settings. In May 2022, a joint group of stakeholders from across the post-16 education sector came together to develop recommendations on how to improve student mental health. These included:

  • Parity of experience;
  • Appropriate and effective information sharing;
  • Clear roles, remits and responsibilities;
  • Additional support for transitions; and
  • Sustainable, long-term funding.

It was in this context that the CYPE Committee began its work on mental health support in higher education with the launch of a written consultation in July 2022.

What needs change?

The Committee emphasised the importance of getting the support for students, in the right place and at the right time. Its substantial report makes 33 recommendations that aim to “ensure that no-one is denied their chance to realise their potential whilst at university because of their mental health”. These touch on areas such as:

  • Improving data collection, to build a better understanding of the extent of demand for student mental health support;
  • Specific action to address the needs of international students and students on healthcare and social care courses;
  • Continuing to build an evidence base around the effectiveness of blended teaching and learning strategies;
  • Building a whole-system approach to mental health across the post-16 sector, with a common framework for higher education that disseminates common expectations and principles;
  • Keeping staff interests and needs central to planning; and
  • Making it simpler for students to access NHS support, for example by improving ease of GP registration and exploring the feasibility of a student healthcare passport.

The need to balance consistency of support, and common expectations from students and providers, with the diversity of the student body in Wales was a constant theme. In all initiatives to support students, the Committee was clear that student voice should be central.

The Committee also took note of a range of other pieces of work happening within and beyond the Senedd. Most notably, the Committee specifically endorses recommendations from the Health and Social Care Committee’s work on mental health inequalities, and the Welsh Youth Parliament’s Young Minds Matter report.

What’s the Welsh Government’s view?

The Welsh Government says:

It’s crucial we create an environment where learners feel safe to disclose a mental health condition so that appropriate support and services can be put in place to support them and help them to succeed and to get the most of out of their time at university.

Out of the 33 recommendations, the Welsh Government has accepted 16, 3 are accepted in part, 11 are accepted in principle, and 3 have been rejected.

The Government also said that its response is mindful of the establishment of the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) and that many of the recommendations will need to be considered by CTER.

The Senedd will debate the CYPE Committee’s report on Wednesday 14 June 2023. You can watch it on

Article by Rosemary Hill and Lucy Morgan, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament