The Project

Lay Summary

In recent years, we have witnessed radical changes in the UK university sector. Student tuition fees have risen to £9,250 per year; there have been attempts to turn higher education into a marketplace of qualifications and the rapid expansion of universities has been made possible through unprecedented levels of borrowing. At the same time, the mental health and wellbeing of university staff and students are reported to have rapidly deteriorated. There have been few attempts to develop methods to investigate the relationship between the transformation of universities and mental health. We will produce the first network map of UK higher education featuring key actors and organisations, focusing particularly on those who have influence in relation to university health and wellbeing. We will also gather and analyse policies on this subject and assess where they locate causes of mental ill-health and possible interventions.

The project is conducted by Dr Leon Rocha (University of Lincoln), Dr Philip Garnett (University of York), and Professor Felicity Callard (University of Glasgow), and Dr Dimitra Kotouza (University of Lincoln). We are funded by the Wellcome Trust (219172/Z/19/Z), and you can find out more about our team here. The project began in February 2020 and came to a close in Summer 2021, although publications will continue to appear.

Long Description

It is surprising that scholars from the medical humanities and social sciences have not substantially turned their attention to the UK university sector itself, even though it is one of the most significant nodes in today’s knowledge economy. The university is also highly influential in shaping discourses and practices around mental health and wellbeing. Our project involves a collaborative, interdisciplinary group of researchers able to advance new tools and a framework to begin to map, anatomise and interpret the relationships between two features central to the UK university sector: (i) the complex network of sectoral, para-sectoral and private organisations reshaping the operations—and occupational and pedagogical characteristics—of the twenty-first century university; (ii) the growing preoccupation with student—and increasingly staff—mental health.

There have been many commentaries on the deleterious consequences of a marketised and financialised UK university sector. There are, meanwhile, growing efforts to improve student—and now staff—mental health (e.g. Universities UK’s 2017 #StepChange framework). But there have been few attempts to develop methods and conduct empirical work that might allow any relationship between recent transformations in higher education and mental health to become visible and interpretable. MapUKHE proposes novel and distinctive methods for addressing this question: we bring network analysis techniques (which investigate the operations of organisations and groups of organisations) into contact with the textual analysis of policies and grey literature relating to mental health.

The project investigators comprise researchers from the humanities and the (qualitative/quantitative) social sciences. We turn our expertise—in history and sociology of mental health and emotions, complex systems theory, intellectual history, geographies of the knowledge economy, science and technology studies, among others—to the particularities of the UK higher education sector. We also engage with the nascent discipline of critical university studies, which has helped analyse how culture, labour, and politics intersect in the contemporary university. Our research and mapping will bring to visibility both (i) the network structure of actors central to UK higher education and its governance; (ii) the dominant frameworks and discourses that bring to life ‘mental health’ in the university. We believe that we will yield new insights and materials important for understanding one of the most crucial institutions of knowledge production. Our activities are directed towards two ends:

1. Building the first systems/network analysis of UK higher education to map actors and organisational arrangements. We focus particularly on actors/organisations that have significant influence on mental health and wellbeing (in terms of their conceptualisation or in relation to policies or interventions). The charities, think tanks, regulators, lobby groups and universities which make up the higher education sector are connected by a complex network of relationships (subsidiaries, interlocking directorships, associations). The network will reveal who the powerbrokers and influencers are, and the composition of communities representing particular approaches (e.g. mindfulness, public health, systems approaches, Mental health First Aid) and discursive and ideological priorities. The network allows the structures of power to be visualised, providing firm foundations for subsequent research on which interventions, policies, and actors are shaping how university mental health, wellbeing and stress are being addressed.

2. Collection and analysis of policies and documents surrounding staff and student mental health. There is a proliferation of policies and approaches used in relation to staff and student mental health in UK universities. We gather these systematically and subject them to interdisciplinary analysis—investigating the extent to which discourses and frameworks used to address mental health in higher education are individualising, and what models of mental health and wellbeing they deploy. We assess where they locate causes of mental ill-health and poor wellbeing; who and what they call upon to ameliorate the situation; and triangulate with findings from our network mapping.