The rise of mental health disclosure in HE – a case for moral panic?

It should be applauded that the minister for HE has cast a spotlight on the provision for a growing numbers of students who are identifying as having mental health difficulties. However, what isn’t clear is why a specific group of disabled students should gain so much ministerial attention and (moral) panic within headlines of major newspapers. I thought a good starting point might be an analysis of the extent of the problem by using freely available statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

This table shows the relative increase in disclosure of mental health difficulties (MHD) alongside disclosure of specific learning difficulties (SpLD)(dyslexia etc.), the overall increases in the numbers of students in general and the disclosure of all disabled students. (N.B. these are only first year UK domiciled students as the figures for all students are much harder to obtain from the HESA website – but they are a good enough sample to show the size of the effects).

What is clear is that there is cause for celebration in terms of the sector’s duty to implement the Equality Act 2010. For example, overall there has been almost a five-fold increase in the level of students who were willing to disclose some type of HESA-categorised disability. This is a great achievement for the UK in general as it is more than likely a combination of the increased awareness and acceptance of conditions such as dyslexia, autistic spectrum disorders and MHDs. Students are being diagnosed with these conditions much more frequently and are increasingly willing to tell someone about it.

Going back to the figures, in terms of SpLD there has been a 13-fold increase and for students with MHD an almost 19-fold increase. Maybe this is where the panic has come from? However, a very quick ‘eyeballing’ of the numbers shows that between 1994/95 and 2005/06 disclosure of SpLD increased five-fold which is a similar rate of increase as that which we have seen in the last 8 year period for MHD disclosure. However, there hasn’t been (or rather there wasn’t) a similar level of panic in the sector when the increases in dyslexia were identified. No minister for higher education accused the sector of failing students with SpLD as far as I am aware, although one has recently mentioned the importance of the support he received when he found out he was dyslexic at school. There are still twice as many students in HE with SpLDs than with MHD, but no headlines appearing about their support?

What is encouraging is that most universities are now well staffed to work with students who disclose MHD, often with a significant level of counselling resource and more often than not a multi-disciplinary team under the auspices of wellbeing. These resources have increasingly been bolstered by additional services provided through the NMH element of DSA funding through specialist mentoring provision. HE still seems to be the richer cousin compared to other levels of the education sector when it comes to resourcing support for SEN (a perverse quirk of the education system – fight your way into HE and get good support having contended with the continued post code lottery in schools and colleges). This was not the case for SpLD students in HE in 1994 when these statistics were first collected. There was very little provision for those students 25 years ago. Most universities now provide reasonable adjustments for SpLD students such as extra time for exams and assignments (some HEPs) and extended library loans, as well as utilising the NMH allowances from DSA to pay for specialist tuition. But it would be useful to see a comparison of the resources available for these two groups of students within HEPs.

Something else to think about: I haven’t analysed the figures for all the other categories of disability here, however policy makers ought to consider the statistics in a more holistic fashion before accusing the sector of failing to adequately support one particular group. The picture is much more nuanced that it might first appear. For example, it should be noted that there are only 936 more first year deaf students enrolling in 2016/17 (2080) than there were in 1994/95 (1144). Perhaps, not so surprising when you consider the rates at which deaf students gain 5 A*-C GCSEs. Should we be just as morally panicked? Maybe Sam Gyimah ought to tell Vice-Chancellors that prioritising these students is not negotiable?  Or maybe he should just be concerned about all disabled learners in all levels of the education sector?

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