When we took over as the Sabb team last summer, we knew that this year would be a year like no other, but none of us could have predicted the unique challenges that the pandemic would present. The process of overcoming these challenges, however, has given us the opportunity to radically reimagine what the student experience at Oxford can look like, and to dream bigger than ever before.
Nothing exemplifies this better than the accomplishments of the Mental Health Task Force (MHTF), a group that has done more to change the conversation around welfare and mental health at Oxford than has been achieved in decades.
I first began having discussions as VP Women about the formation of a body with a similar composition and remit as the task force when, early in the summer, I became aware of the potential issue of students being placed in households with students they had previously accused of harassment or assault. While this was resolved after a simple conversation, it took three weeks of me chasing my tail trying to find the right person without the collegiate University to take ownership of the problem. It became painfully obvious that we needed a task force that could respond with agility to any problems that cropped up during the pandemic, and that brought together people from every facet of student life.
It was also clear that the pandemic was causing a mental health crisis. There are numerous statistics that show how severely student mental health has been impacted by the pandemic, but really one only needs to have a few conversations with students to see the effect. We have been acutely aware of how much our members have struggled this year and all of the obstacles they have had to overcome.
As a Sabb team, we lobbied extensively for the formation of such a body, even taking these concerns to the VC. We were thrilled, then, when we heard news of the creation of the Mental Health Task Force, which met these needs. The first phase of the task force involved fast paced work from all parties to address the needs of students in crisis. In particular, we identified there would be a major gap in provision for students over the Christmas break, many of whom would need to remain in Oxford, but any solution needed to take into account the significant strain staff were under and their need for a break, as well.
To this end, the Task Force secured over £400,000 in additional funds to expand the counselling service and make it accessible over the Christmas vac. The counselling service also was made more inclusive and accessible by hiring a counsellor who specialises in supporting black students. Additionally, we compiled and advertised all of the mental health resources available to students and identified gaps in the provision.
After completing the tasks set out in its limited terms of reference, the MHTF was put on ice, however there was broad consensus that there was much further work to be done. Thus, the MHTF entered what was called Phase Two, with the aim of answering the following, more long term questions:
What basic assumptions should the Collegiate University make about mental health provision for its student body in the mid-term??
What are the OFS / University Mental Health Charter expectations?? What are the greatest areas of need??
What are the obvious gaps, in provision or knowledge in both central and college services??
What common framework or agreements can we aim for across the collegiate university on the equality and types of mental health provision that we offer??
How can we connect central and college services better across the ecosystem??
Where can we connect more closely with mental health provision for staff??
Having mapped out the answers to these questions through a large survey, the Task Force has now sent out a letter of recommendation to Conference of Colleges and PVC Martin Williams on how to enshrine its work into the University’s structure moving forward. The SU supports the recommendations in this letter and we are pleased that there seems to be considerable willpower to capitalise on the momentum that has been built up in this policy area.
We want to ensure that the work we have done this year is carried forward by the next group of Sabbs, and are therefore bringing a policy to Student Council to mandate us as an organisation to continue lobbying for the next steps in this process.
This policy would be supplementary to our Welfare Vision (TT16, renewed TT19), and mandates us to lobby the collegiate University for the following:
a) Become compliant with and sign up to the National Student Mental Health Charter as soon as possible.?
b) Create a Common Framework for Mental Health that is adopted across colleges.
c) Continue the expanded funding for the Counselling Service and plan for sustainable funding over the next 3-5 years.
d) Set up a new joint University and College committee on Student Mental Health and Wellbeing.?
e) Establish the role of PVC for Student Experience and Wellbeing.
f) Complete and publish a review of student wellbeing, and consider the fundamental changes that could be made to the Oxford student experience to promote good mental health and wellbeing, for example academic workload, the addition of reading weeks, term lengths, and the diversification of teaching and assessment.
The full wording of this policy will be available to read before the 7th week Student Council, and we look forward to discussing the aims at that meeting. We hope you as our members will support us in creating this piece of legacy work that will help us continue pushing for better mental health provision for students in the coming year. We believe these systemic changes will allow for us to radically overhaul the provision for students with mental health needs at the University, to ensure that everyone can make the most out of their education. Clear ownership of this policy area, with both a new joint committee and a PVC for Student Experience and wellbeing, and a commitment to meeting targets set by the National Student Mental Health Charter will help us to continue taking advantage of the current appetite for these changes.