For those in need of counselling, one size won’t necessarily fit all. That’s why it’s important for universities to offer a range of therapeutic models to meet a range of needs for those in times of distress.
Jon Sharp, Director of Student Services at the University of East Anglia, spoke to Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, about his multifaceted approach to inclusion, acknowledging that we all have well-being needs, and more.
I’m the Director of Student Services at the University of East Anglia. I’ve been here for 27 years. Before that, I was in corporate tax accountancy and consultancy, which I didn’t like much. I saw an opening as an administrator, and always had the desire to be Dean of Students and made my way through various roles. I’ve been in this current role for 6.5 years. It’s the best job!
It’s a gratifying role. I came from a background that “shouldn’t have gone to university”, so I’m very grateful that people in my life made sure I did. Now my main job is that people who should be with us join, and those that are struggling to stay are able to stay. You can’t ask for more than that from a role!
It’s probably the single biggest issue facing students. I tend to think about mental health and wellbeing because we’re all on a spectrum. Some people might have a diagnosed condition, but anybody can go through negative wellbeing. I want to avoid the over-medicalisation of things but balance that with an acknowledgement that people often feel like they’re overloading us if they come with a problem that “isn’t serious enough.”
I tend to think about mental health and wellbeing because we’re all on a spectrum. Some people might have a diagnosed condition, but anybody can go through negative wellbeing.
We’ve changed quite a lot about our approach. We now have a therapy team instead of a counselling team so that we can include a range of therapeutic models. We’ve also got mental health advisors, and many students struggle to come through the door, so we now have embedded teams in faculty, which is a less intimidating doorway people can use first to access support.
Lots of students live their lives digitally. We’ve found, particularly with men, there’s a discomfort in sitting in a room to talk about issues. The gap of the screen can provide more confidence.
Residential life is another big one — students get homesick and lonely, they fall out, et cetera. We have a team of people who do community building. It generally stops tensions from getting too bad. Flats will include people from all sorts of backgrounds, and that can be tough.
This might sound trivial, but for me, most universities will have EDI committees, and they all want to achieve the right thing. Having been to a university with lots of people from privileged backgrounds, I know it’s the small things, like not knowing what formal dress for a hall meal is.
We looked at our accommodation brochure, and while it was diverse, it was in a surface-level way in that they all looked like they lived on the same street. As part of our conversations, we say to students, what will make you feel belonging? Another example was the type of skincare and haircare products we had — many were only catering to White people.
There’s also the bigger stuff — having zero tolerance for harassment — it’s better to have difficult press because there are cases, than pretending that there weren’t any. It’s important to have wider links with the town and community that students exist in, too. We had a problem with the harassment of our Asian students on buses during Covid, so we got in contact with the bus company itself and asked them to put posters up.
The key is that everything we do stems from talking to students — it’s so important to ask what matters to them. And if you say you’re going to do something, do it and do it quickly.
Whenever you have this conversation, you have to be really honest. Universities could do a lot, but until we have a significant change to the culture, we’ll always be fighting it. And that’s a culture where it’s okay to treat women differently and or be racist as long as it’s not overt. We’re a long way from where we need to be.
There are three elements to what we do right now though. There’s the practical stuff; we have a system where if you feel unsafe, you can press a button on your phone, which sends a signal to security, and they’ll come to wherever you are. We share information with the police, for example, if there’s been suspicious behaviour in the area. We also have a very rigorous approach to student discipline, and the penalties are significant. There’s also the prevention element. We don’t want to get into victim blaming, but we do things like ensure all bars have drink stoppers available.
I’m going to cheat and say an institution, but Staffordshire University has for many years been clear about its mission in a way other universities have struggled to be. They said, we’re not chasing prizes, we’re chasing improved life chances. Having a clear mission and going for it is really, really important.
The current VC at Sheffield Hallam I admire because he managed to walk the difficult path of implementing government policy in a way that’s as friendly to people in HE (and who HE serves) as it possibly can be.
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. It reminds me there is no such thing as a single truth. Also, Animal Farm by George Orwell points to the danger of a society that doesn’t treat people appropriately and the equivalent danger of replacing that with the wrong system.