By Paul Temple
I do like a nice two-by-two matrix, don’t you? I’ve been told that they’re such a feature of teaching at Harvard Business School that the whiteboards there come with the gridlines ready-marked (that’s in the “too good to check” category, by the way, in case you’re a HBS alum). So my attention was immediately caught when I saw that Rachel Hewitt’s HEPI Policy Note on “Measuring well-being in higher education” (May 2019) featured one. One axis is “mental wellbeing” and the other is “mental ill-health”. This is interesting, implying that the two are entirely distinct categories, when I suspect that most people would assume that the one goes in step with the other. So the matrix quadrant of “optimal mental wellbeing” and “maximal mental ill-health” conjures up a consultation on the lines of:
Psychiatrist: “Good morning, how are you feeling today?”
Patient: “Absolutely great, thank you, doctor!”
Psychiatrist: “So, let’s continue our discussion of your feelings of worthlessness and alienation…”
I’m not saying that the two categories are not in fact separate – I don’t have the expertise to make a claim either way – but the HEPI note, saying that mental ill-health requires “dedicated interventions” whereas lack of wellbeing needs “generalised resources”, doesn’t help me much in grasping the distinction being drawn here. The HEPI note then encourages universities to measure wellbeing so that “we can better understand the long-term trends in the health of those in the higher education sector” with a view to reducing “the likelihood of mental illness”. So the two are it seems, after all, linked in some way. There goes the nice two-by-two matrix then, if mental wellbeing and mental health are actually on a continuum.
So what about measuring wellbeing? There’s a good bit of this going on, by ONS (“On a scale of 0 to 10, how anxious did you feel yesterday?”) and the Student Academic Experience Survey, with an impressive sample size of 14,000. This apparently produced in 2017 a positive response to a “Life worthwhile?” question from just 19% of students – a figure which the HEPI note doesn’t seem to think worth remarking on. Are we really saying that only 19% of students think that their lives are worthwhile? This deeply implausible finding – which might perhaps be explained by respondents interpreting the question as something like, “Could your life be improved in same way?” – is thrown into even greater doubt when it turns out that the DLHE data for graduates has 80% of them answering “high” or “very high” to a “Life worthwhile?” question (and most of the rest give a “medium” answer).
“Not everyone”, goes on the HEPI note, “is keen on the increased collection of well-being measures.” Well, no, if the data are as all over the place as these are. But one key reason apparently given for not collecting wellbeing data is a concern that universities will then be judged on a measure over which they have no control. True, they do not have control over their students’ wellbeing, and nor should they have. Where is the evidence that students define themselves wholly as “students”, rather than individuals who happen to be students and a mass of other things besides? A negative answer to a wellbeing question could just as much reflect the breakup of a relationship, seeing Nigel Farage on TV, or watching Arsenal play, as it has to do with the university. The HEPI note argues the other way, saying that “We cannot make improvements in the delivery of higher education if we do not understand our weaknesses” – the assumption being that the factors that cause poor mental wellbeing are “weaknesses” to be found somewhere in the university, susceptible to management interventions. Universities can try to improve their NSS scores by providing feedback more promptly, or whatever, because students have themselves defined the problem precisely: “We want faster feedback”. No such precision can be available to help improve wellbeing, as your idea of wellbeing may be completely different to mine. Universities should instead do what they are supposed to do – using their resources to create a community which supports the best teaching and research that it can achieve – and allow students to build mental resilience in their own ways by drawing on the intellectual resources that should be on offer to them.
SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.