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From the Chair: Duty of care

03 August 2021 | news

Professor Jan Thomas
Vice-Chancellor, Massey University

Everyone who is part of a university community quite rightfully has high expectations that the institution will keep students safe. We’ve long ago moved beyond just thinking about physical safety. Today, this extends far wider and becomes more complex.  

The mental health needs of students has been under a spotlight for some time, and rightly so. In 2008, 6% of domestic tertiary students accessed mental health services. By 2017, this had near doubled to 11%, and if my conversations with those working in Student Services is anything to go by this trend has continued.

Society is now recognising that mental health goes hand in hand with physical wellbeing. The 2018 Kei te Pai? Report on Student Mental Health in Aotearoa found that “poor mental health and wellbeing can impact students’ academic performance and their desire to remain in higher education”. It’s an area of grave concern and one that COVID hasn’t helped.

The Code of Practice for the Pastoral Care of Tertiary and International Students has now been published. It is a significant improvement on the ‘Interim Code’ that it replaces.  It clarifies expectations of tertiary providers in a number of useful ways, while giving the Crown greater power to take legal action if there is a serious breach.

Code concerns

While I believe we need more focus on student wellbeing and safety, the new Code does concern me with the expectations and burdens it puts on tertiary education organisations. The Code outlines a much increased number of outcomes and expectations, plus significantly more effort to be allocated to reporting on actions. All sensible, providing the reporting is used to improve outcomes within the sector, but not if it might negatively impact current efforts to support our students.

One of the things our sector has seen increase in a world where many borders remain closed, is the number of students studying online, or via offshore education institutes. However, the Code now applies to all students studying for a New Zealand qualification, whether those students are based in Aotearoa or offshore. This raises some serious and troubling questions: What obligations do universities have in situations when realistically relatively little can be done due to students not being physically here? And what, if any, support will be offered to the sector should students off campus require urgent help?

Broken system

There is already increasing demand for counselling services being seen at all universities, with wait times of several weeks at peak periods. However, quite alarmingly, these wait times are significantly shorter than many of the external agencies and practitioners within the healthcare system. A broken system that has just seen mental health campaigner and former ‘Sir’, Mike King formally return his New Zealand Order of Merit and speak of his “profound sense of sadness that no-one’s listening.”

While universities are trying to provide ongoing support and care to all students, and ensure they can access appropriate support promptly, it continues to highlight a failure in the current health system. This is a critical gap, which if not addressed, will eventually become a deep chasm.

The Code places significant responsibility on Tertiary Education Organisations, who are not Primary Health Organisations, nor resourced to provide the sorts of services and support expected of PHOs. This is obviously a risk, unless similar commitments are made by central Government that the organisations equipped to deal with the health and wellbeing needs of students will support those identified by TEOs with the necessary specialist care and support longer-term. University counselling services exist to support students to be successful in their student journey, helping them through the stresses and challenges of being a student. They can’t, and shouldn’t have to, treat ongoing complex mental health needs.

As universities, we have tens of thousands of people, many of them young adults, who face various sacrifices, experience increased stress and anxiety and incur debt to be with us. It is our responsibility to support them by any means we can, to ensure they are successful in overcoming the challenges they face and reap the benefits offered by higher education.

As I write this, I remain optimistic that the Government understands these challenges and can see that we are all committed to doing our best for our students. I hope that Government will implement the Code in ways that recognise that education providers and Government have to work together on ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our students.