Time for universities to get ahead of the politicians and the media on the issue of parental notifications and student mental health


A response to today's article (4th December 2018) in The Telegraph: "Education Secretary backs system to flag university students' mental health problems to parents"

As I read yet another article about a politician making pronouncements about the need for universities to notify families when a student is struggling, I can't help but feel that politicians and the media are - for their own ends - doing all the running on this issue.


It is positive to see today that the issue of consent from the student, via the UCAS form, is starting to make it into the media coverage. However it’s still far too easy to say, as the Telegraph article does, that Vice-Chancellors need to “get better at reaching out to family members" without grappling with the complexities.  Politicians and the media may have the luxury of being able to sidestep the practical complexities involved here; universities do not.


For me, one of the biggest questions is when. When should universities inform parents? When a student misses lectures? When a student misses deadlines? When a student mentions to a tutor that they are struggling? When a student requests counselling? When a student requests to change course, interrupt or withdraw?


Any of these options would involve the last two universities at which I worked notifying between 2,000 and 25,000 families each year. This question of when is important because it helps us start to consider the practical processes that would need to be put in place within our universities.


Perhaps notifying between 2,000 and 25,000 families each year is feasible. Or maybe the process would become so bottle-necked from day one that the policy would become counter-productive, even dangerously so. Among all the noise and activity of parental notifications, there is a real risk here that those students most at risk and most in need of support could, perversely, become less visible and less supported than ever before.


Beyond the when, there are other vital questions here. What legal amendments would be required? The Telegraph article glibly states that "Mr Murray has called for the rules to be relaxed so parents can be told if students are struggling", but these are not university rules we are enforcing; instead it is likely that data protection legislation may need to be amended, by Parliament, for practice to change in the way that the Education Secretary suggests.


Then we need to ensure students can withdraw or amend their consent at any point. Family relationships change. Students may feel pressured initially by family to give consent for parental notification on their UCAS form, and may want or need to withdraw that consent later on. And we must ensure students can change the details of the person who should be notified; Sam Gyimah MP, as Universities Minister, recently made a helpful concession when he said that he preferred to think of this as a 'trusted person' being the person who is contacted (after being chosen and nominated by the student), rather than the system defaulting to parents.


The whole process must reflect the reality that families can be the problem. Support service staff in universities are all too aware of cases in which students have an injunction against a parent for harassment, or in which a parent is not permitted to know that their daughter or son is even a student at the university. University counsellors and mental health practitioners are all too familiar with unpicking years of family abuse - sexual, psychological, physical, financial - to see through any claim that "reaching out to family members" is some kind of panacea here.


There also needs to be clarity about who, within an institution, can approve such notifications. In institutions with several thousand staff, you cannot have any member of staff taking it upon themselves to start contacting parents and families or you end up with a complete mess - families being notified multiple times, central support services unaware of students at risk, and so on.


Finally we need to consider who manages the ongoing interactions with parents. Read the media coverage and it would seem as though parents, on receiving the call from a university, will come running to pick up their daughter or son, and all will be well. In reality, this will be just the start of parents becoming even more demanding about the specialist support that universities are providing to their daughter or son. I can hear the phones ringing now, with raised voices coming down the line about how we have "failed to support Tom" or how the university is "making Charlotte's mental health worse". You just know that the full force of these parental expectations will be aimed squarely at universities, rather than the NHS.


The HE sector needs to get out in front of this issue. At the moment it feels as though this is just something to bash the sector with. The former Universities Minister might not be in government any more to push this issue, but today's article shows that there are other politicians happy to pick up the baton. And the media...well, anything they can use to criticise the higher education sector will pick up plenty of traction for the foreseeable, I'm sure.

Universities must start feeding into the national debate and quickly, informed by those of us who have managed student support services and who are best-placed to move beyond the overly-simplistic rhetoric.


I’m happy to work with a university that wants to consider this issue properly to establish what might work, and what definitely wouldn't work, with a view to contributing, fairly quickly, to this discussion. Do contact me if this would be of interest.

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