In October 2017, in response to Universities UK’s StepChange initiative, University of Nottingham proposed their approach to developing holistic student health and wellbeing. This case study, written by Andy Winter, Campus Life Director, outlines how he led the creation of their institutional Student Health and Wellbeing Strategy, and what steps they are taking now this has been agreed.

Who we are

The University of Nottingham is a large and complex organisation. The total global staff and student population tops over 53,000 people, and breaks down into many smaller units defined by their function, academic focus, and geographical location. Layered onto that is the complexity of cultures and experiences – 27% of the student population are international students; 20% are postgraduates. Whilst we are all part of the same entity, in an organisation that big and diverse, it is unsurprising that there is no single institutional community – more a series of interconnected and overlapping communities, each producing their own solutions based on their own conditions within a centralised framework set by the institutional leadership.

Against that backdrop, how do you create a holistic university approach to student health and wellbeing? It’s less turning the tanker, and more trying to orient a series of various sized ships within a flotilla.

What we did

The first step was to acknowledge that mental health cannot be considered in isolation. As anyone working in the area of student wellbeing knows, the moment that you start talking about mental health, you start to run into issues of physical health, social health, financial health, etc. Our strategy would therefore need to encompass all of these areas.

Secondly, we acknowledged that we weren’t starting from scratch. In addition to all of the existing professional services like Counselling and Sport there were existing initiatives and projects within academic schools that had been created locally to address the concerns of their students. If we were to create a coherent picture of current delivery, we would need to not only audit what currently exists but also engage the leaders of these projects as stakeholders in the creation of our strategy.

And thirdly, we acknowledged that because this had not been mapped previously, there was no clear method through which we could provide the regular opportunity for visibility to senior University leadership. We would need to establish a reporting and governance structure to create a platform for promoting our work, for highlighting our delivery difficulties, and for proactively gathering constructive challenge about how we support student wellbeing.

Having had the clear senior authority to go ahead, we created a consultation event – inviting 65 colleagues from 27 different University Faculties and departments, and drawing in external parties including the Director of Public Health from Nottingham City Council. This event was used to establish four key parts of what became our strategy:

  • Our overarching objective
  • Our five thematic areas
  • Our underpinning principles for delivery
  • Our spectrum of intervention
What was challenging

Presented this way this sounds clean and smooth. But these areas and the details within them were distilled out of numerous notes from the attendees. It was a process of translation with myself as Campus Life Director acting as translator to connect sometimes disparate thoughts into a coherent whole that everyone could agree on. Naturally, the first draft was subject to many comments and suggested rewrites in order to get to something that we could agree was the best encapsulation of what we had all been trying to communicate. Concerned that we could very easily end up in a cycle of endless rewrites as each individual tried to get to their own perfect version, we put a very tight schedule on this phase of consulting on the document. This phase, from first meeting to final product, was completed in just over 2 months. It was also completed with the clear understanding that further edits would likely be suggested once the document was passed into the University’s committee structure.

Having established and detailed the framework, we moved to the full audit of existing projects. Here every person who felt that they had something to contribute was asked to complete a simple proforma. This asked them to outline details of the project, service or initiative including amongst other details:

  1. Who leads the project
  2. A brief outline of the activity
  3. Any targets or objectives that are used to measure the success of the work
  4. Who the specific target audience is
  5. Where they think it fits thematically into the strategy
  6. Where they think it fits within our spectrum of intervention

We allowed four months for the completion of this exercise to attempt to get out to as many parts of the institution as possible. Even capturing the 59 projects and services that we have currently mapped under the strategy, we are sure that there are other activities going on within the institution that we have not yet had visibility of. Because of the nature of the institution – its size, its complexity – I believe this will be an organic and iterative process with new projects coming into creation and being captured in our mapping as others conclude.

The next stage was to get formal approval for the strategy. A recent change to University governance meant that we had a clear line to where adoption of the strategy should come from. By establishing as under the responsibilities of our Education and Student Experience committee we not only had a place where we could report progress – we had a group that could look across the totality of the student experience, considering experience both inside and outside of the classroom. This should in time address one of the major concerns of practitioners who work within the area of student health: namely, that the issue is considered as something unrelated to the academic experience and entirely within the responsibilities of professional services.

The Student Health and Wellbeing Strategy was approved by our Education and Student Experience committee on 24th October 2018 – one year after the initial proposal for the creation of the strategy was agreed by our Executive Board.

What we need to do now

But whilst it is great that we have this in place and that we have published this as a statement of our intent, there is still significant work to do.

We have only just established how we will undertake reporting to the committee. With a strategy that contains so many different initiatives, individual scrutiny would swamp the agenda, where complete overview would not allow for any more that the most surface of review. We settled on thematic review – creating an overview report that gives details of each initiative, and two showcase presentations that allow the committee to understand initiatives in more detail. It may be that this approach works perfectly; it may be that we require a different approach. As with all things, I expect there will be adaption over time.

In addition, we need to continue to raise the visibility of the strategy. Just because a committee has agreed it doesn’t mean that everyone knows it exists or knows what it is for. There is an ongoing process of communication to ensure that at the very least key staff within the institution are engaged and can contribute to the health and wellbeing agenda.

We need to continue to bring people together so that they can learn from each other. The process of creating the strategy and mapping existing projects has demonstrated the number of times within a university individuals can come up with similar ideas without knowing that other parties having the same ideas exist, or that the solution to the problem they are looking to answer has already been answered some years ago in another area of the organisation.

But more than anything else, we need to be able to measure the impact of our work. And not through simply counting the number of students who walk through the doors of our specialist services. A measure of the health of our community is not just those who are unhealthy or in distress, but those whose health and wellbeing is well maintained. That’s a difficult thing to quantify and RAG rate.

Overall, I feel that we have written the first part of a story but there are still many more chapters to come – chapters that, through our strategy framework, we will write together as a whole institution.

Download the University of Nottingham’s Student Health and Wellbeing Strategy .

WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO IMPROVE WELLBEING at your university?