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Understanding provision for students with mental health problems and intensive support needs

Understanding provision for students with mental health problems and intensive support needs

In July 2015 HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) published the report ‘Understanding provision for students with mental health problems and intensive support needs’ by the Institute for Employment Studies and Research Equity, Access and Participation. The report focuses on current changes and challenges universities face in the support they provide to students with  MH (mental health) problems and ISN (intensive support needs), whilst looking at best practices and recommendations to tackling these challenges.

The study involved a review of recent literature concerning the ways in which support for students with MH problems and other impairments is organised, and case study visits to 12 HEIs (higher education institutions) and FECs (further education colleges) across England undertaken between October 2014 and February 2015.

The research was primarily qualitative, with the core of the research consisting of context specific in-depth interviews with a range of staff, at all levels and across different roles, to explore what institutions do and why, and the challenges faced.

The research explored 4 key questions:

  • How HE (Higher Education) providers fund and provide support for students with severe MH problems and impairments where intensive or multi-agency support is required.
  • The split of provision between in-house support services and external support agencies.
  • How HE providers balance factors in making decisions over the nature and extent of support offered with limited funding, and the impact on students.
  • What the key pressure points and challenges for HE providers are.


There appeared to be a number of key drivers underpinning the institutional focus on supporting disabled students:

  • Moral responsibility and a duty of care for students.
  • Legal responsibility to meet the duties of the Equality Act.
  • Business case to attract and retain students.

Institutions reported that policies and strategies were being developed against a backdrop of increasing demand for support, particularly from students with MH problems. There was also a commonly expressed desire to improve provision, and thus a tendency to regard support services as work in progress rather than a finished article.

With 1 in 4 adults likely to experience MH difficulties at some point in their lives and a reported increase in the number of students coming forward declaring MH conditions and support needs of a more diverse nature, universities are having to rapidly adapt their support to these changing demands. On top of this, the government have announced changes to the DSA (Disabled Students’ Allowance), mounting more pressure on these institutions resources and funding.

The report outlined numerous issues and challenges faced by universities and proposed a number of strategies and solutions:

  • Encouraging (early) disclosure – early disclosure of MH problems is important in allowing institutions to plan provision effectively and could help support students right from the beginning of their studies.
  • Development of inclusive curricula – universities are facing difficult decisions about who they can support and in what ways to be supported due to mounting pressures on resources. It was identified as important to create more inclusive provision to partly tackle this problem.
  • Proactive measures to reduce demand for support – the introduction of measures aimed at reducing the demand for support from students with MH problems, such as building students’ resilience and the ability to deal with the issues themselves, was another important aspect identified.
  • Improving internal relationships – there was a clear need for all universities to develop a better dialogue with academic colleagues regarding to support of students.
  • Developing external partnerships – all case study institutions were working with external agencies in some form and saw the benefit to both the university and the community. However, partnership working does use resources and these need to be factored into the costs of the services, which may be difficult under increasing financial pressures.

To read the full report you can access it via this link.



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