Some 96 percent of UK students believe universities should offer ‘emotional education’ on the curriculum to help reverse the student mental health crisis, according to new research.
The survey, from students’ emotional fitness app Fika, polled 1,500 students and 100 employers on the need for formal emotional and social education at schools and universities.
Almost two thirds (65 percent) of students said receiving emotional education modules at university would help protect them from encountering mental health problems. More than half (52 percent) said it would help them better understand how to take care of themselves and each other.
69 percent of students felt the emotional support available at their university was inadequate, with more than a third (35 percent) saying waiting lists for counselling and mental health support were too long.
More than a fifth (22 percent) said “help is only available when things get tough – there is nothing in place to help me learn, build and maintain a better mindset”.
77 percent of students found the transition into university difficult, according to Fika’s study, with one in five (20 percent) recalling it as “very difficult”. 60 percent said they had received no advice on how to deal with this transition.
Almost a third (28 percent) said academic pressure had led to them feeling isolated, damaging their personal relationships. 17 percent said “work has taken over my life”.
97 percent of students felt receiving some formal education at university in how to build key life skills like resilience, confidence and self-motivation would be beneficial to them, Fika’s study found.
Nine in ten (88 percent) worry they will leave university emotionally unequipped for “the real world of work”. 57 percent feel universities are “not doing enough” to arm students with the emotional skills they will need to thrive at work.
Sir Anthony Seldon, educationalist, historian and Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said: “Fika’s findings are cause for grave concern. The pressure within the academic system to demonstrate quantifiable results, rather than turning out well-rounded, properly equipped graduates, is creating an anxious, ill-equipped and emotionally fragile generation of workers. As a sector, we must pay heed to these findings and come together to find and implement solutions. If we do nothing, the impact could be devastating, on an individual level and on a broader socio-economic level.”
The Fika app offers hundreds of simple, evidence-based emotional exercise programmes, all co-created with students to help them cope with the specific challenges of university life. These programmes are designed to protect students’ mental health, and arm them with the tools they need to thrive, at university and beyond.
Nick Bennett, CEO and Co-Founder of Fika, said: “The students have spoken – they are asking for formal emotional education, as well as access to counselling, to reverse the mental health crisis. At Fika, we have used technology and science to develop an effective app-based product that fills this gap and meets this need, building students’ confidence, motivation, attainment and employability.
“The emotional education available in the Fika app complements the university curriculum, providing students with a more rounded education. But seeing emotional education added to the curriculum could be transformative for a whole generation of young people.”
A staggering 99 percent of the employers Fika surveyed said offering students emotional and social education as part of the curriculum would improve their chances of career success.
95 percent said they would like to see young people arriving in the workforce with better emotional and social skills, and 87 percent felt graduates often lack the emotional skills they need to thrive at work.
Jason Sinclair, Director of Student Employability at the University of Buckingham, said: “If students are crying out to be further developed emotionally and socially by their universities, it’s absolutely the duty of the sector to respond accordingly. Today’s employers have less and less time to hand-hold employees – they want graduates up and running from day one – so universities must flex to meet this changing need. Offering solely highbrow theory without teaching students the emotional skills they need to thrive is grossly unfair.”
Niamh Hutchings, 21, a third-year undergraduate at the University of Westminster, said: “I think universities are starting to catch on to the fact they need to do more to help with mental health education. It would definitely help – not just with completing the course successfully, but also going off afterwards into the real world – getting jobs and sorting our lives out. Emotional education also sounds like it would help with understanding mental health problems – how to handle and control them, how to deal with things in a healthy way.”
Nadine Pinnock, a 22-year-old student who dropped out of Cardiff University last year following a battle with depression, said: “University can be a really difficult time, especially if you already suffer with mental health problems. I suffered a lot with depression and anxiety throughout my entire university experience. Emotional education, like the type Fika offers, could really help students stay on top of their mental health: it’s not a cure, but it would give people the tools they need to cope.”
The Department for Education has unveiled plans to make wellbeing modules universal in schools from September 2020, but there are no current plans to make them universal at university.
Last year, the University of Bristol became the first UK university to offer optional Science of Happiness courses as part of the curriculum. The Oxford Mindfulness Centre offers courses for students and staff at the University of Oxford, and other psycho-educational initiatives are beginning to be introduced across the sector.
Ellie Wright, a 27-year-old psychology masters student and NHS healthcare assistant, who has completed the University of Bristol’s Science of Happiness programme, said: “Science-based psycho-educational initiatives can have a positive impact on the mental health crisis, by providing universities with an opportunity to build students’ emotional resources and resilience.
“I loved the Science of Happiness so much I did it twice. It was easy to space around my studies. I grew emotional resilience and social support networks; resources I can draw on to help with workplace challenges. When I’m stressed, I see friends rather than books in the library. At work, being emotionally well-rounded has been more useful for me than academic intelligence.”
Author Willem Kuyken, Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science at the University of Oxford, and a Director at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, said: “Fika’s survey makes for sobering reading, laying bare an education system where students, employers and educators all raise issues that urgently need to be addressed. Rather than parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, we must address the problem at its roots. The higher education sector has a duty to redesign its offering to bring emotional and social education to its heart, making these as foundational to the university experience as academic education. Only then will we achieve the outcome we’re looking for: human flourishing.”
In November, Fika will host a higher education think tank, bringing together leaders from across the sector to debate how universities can build a brighter future for student wellbeing.
Fika CEO and Co-Founder Nick Bennett continued: “With 50 percent of young people now pursuing higher education, and the average graduate accruing £50,000 of debt, students are demanding better value for money from the higher education system. We hope to see universities come together to redesign their offering around students’ emotional needs and professional aspirations. We are already working with institutions across the sector to create solutions – from our digital solution, to discussions about the future of the curriculum – and invite all universities to join us in our mission to safeguard students’ wellbeing, relationships and careers.”