Delving deeper and aiming higher: joining up efforts for student mental health in the UK

Delving deeper and aiming higher: joining up efforts for student mental health in the UK


The Office for Students (OfS) is the independent regulator of higher education in England.

The Office for Students wanted to support joint working on student mental health

Providing support for student mental health is an agreed goal, but identifying the best approach is complex and context dependent. Governments, universities, healthcare providers, students and their families are united in wanting a joint approach – but making that happen on a local and national level is frustratingly challenging.

The OfS commissioned Nous to seek a way – via action learning with a mix of health and higher education participants – to achieve this. Now with this work is at its mid-point, significant findings are emerging.

Monthly meetings let us understand the challenges shared by universities and healthcare providers

So far in 2023, we have learned during monthly meetings with institutions across seven National Health Service (NHS) regions that healthcare and higher education (HE) institutions share challenges in joint working. These are rooted in local experiences and contexts, but common themes emerged across all regions. The challenges include:

  • a lack of clear roles and responsibilities
  • a lack of clear information sharing agreements
  • low availability of resources and supports in health systems
  • increasingly diverse – including international and mature – students.

We have also heard about region-specific issues, such as the distributed approach to provision of care for London-based students across multiple NHS trusts and services.

Moreover, through action learning sets and routine and repeat inter-sector engagements, we have been able to explore both sectors’ perspectives on these challenges:

  • HE participants have found it helpful to connect directly with health stakeholders to understand the core of care provision for students, and the pressures facing the system.
  • Healthcare participants have been able to interrogate issues at the nexus of health and higher education in a way that they could not have on their own.

Individuals also shared stories of successful collaboration and best practice and in doing so recognised that they are not alone in tackling these challenges.

The outcome of the ongoing action learning was discussed at a recent cross-regional forum with sector and government representatives. The interim findings of the action learning sets on student mental health are published here.

We learned that action learning is an innovative way to improve cross-sector working

Although local collaboration is important, without better strategic coordination and inter-system collaboration, its effect may be limited. Inter-system collaboration can span from low-intensity relationships to deep partnerships (see below for Nous’ thinking on collaboration spans).

Intensive collaboration requires a significant investment of resources, energy, and purpose; but it can also affect more significant and enduring changes. Where students’ mental and physical health, and workers’ resources to cope (in both HE and health settings) are at stake, there is surely a good case to make for that investment.

Spans of collaboration

The action learning sets will continue to institute positive change in student mental health

As we move into the second phase of action learning, participants are primed and ready to explore solutions to these challenges. We’re excited to continue facilitating their conversations and to share not just barriers, but enablers and solutions. And we’re hopeful for the positive change that can occur across the nation in relation to practices and approaches that support student mental health.

What you can learn from the action learning sets on joint working

  • An end-to-end, joint approach that encompasses the way local services engage with one other, including brokering strategic partnerships at the systems levels, is not a silver bullet; but it can unlock barriers and support better delivery approaches.