Supporting students through the transition from school to university

Steve West

Professor Steve West

Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive
University of the West of England, Bristol

Stuart Rimmer

Chief Executive Officer
East Coast College

With a widespread reported increase in young adults struggling with their mental health and wellbeing, it's essential that universities, colleges and schools work together to better support them when making the leap from school to university.

Every year half a million young people take their first steps into an exciting university career. Although studying closer to home is increasingly common, a significant proportion of students choose to attend university away from home. Regardless of location, this can be a huge and life-changing event. With increasing numbers of students joining university from diverse backgrounds and entry pathways, it's ever more apparent that further work is required to help meet the needs of individuals and provide a smoother transition experience.

The transition experience is complex and challenging for every student, in a variety of ways. 

It's more than just a geographical move away from home, friends, and family. It's also a cultural change, as students step into different socio-economic circles and networks for the first time, and take their first steps towards financial independence. The expectations and pressure on students as independent learners can also be challenging and isolating, and is often compounded by social expectations of university being the 'time of their lives', when in fact their adult lives are only just beginning.

For many students, these challenges are manageable, and quickly overcome. But for some, these factors often create significant distress, disrupt their academic performance, and can potentially worsen a pre-existing mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. These students face an even more extreme shift as they lose the support they've had from their local counsellors, GPs, college student services, or formal child and adolescent mental health (CAMHS) services.

How do we support young people through such a life-changing time?

Improved relationships between universities, colleges and schools are vital, as is better communication and data-sharing. The Mental Health Green Paper published in 2018 recommended that the government commit to a full assessment of current school-to-university transition arrangements between child and adult mental health services, and called for an independent review of data sharing and collaboration frameworks. Schools, colleges and universities must be included in this review.

Further work is required to ensure all students are supported to identify and disclose known 'risk factors', so that full social, psychological and academic support can be in place from the day they step onto campus.

The more that universities can do to get students prepared before they arrive, the better. Student Minds, in partnership with Southern Universities Network, has published a guide to the first few weeks of term, designed to help students prepare through workbook activities and practical case studies. At UWE Bristol we have developed an enhanced induction programme for new students, which signposts available support and includes a new parent and carer advice section on our website, to advise on how best to support loved ones while at university.

Priorities for universities can be found in Universities UK's step change framework, which advocates a whole institution approach to student mental health, while both the Higher Education and Further Education Mental Health Charters – due to be published later in 2019 – will focus on transition.

The freedom students enjoy brings opportunities as well as challenges, and we need to help young people embrace the shift from schoolchild to student, rather than fear it. Starting university should be a rich, exciting and inspiring experience, and by approaching it with proactivity, sensitivity and compassion, we can encourage more students to be successful, and support better mental health for all. 

Stuart Rimmer is the CEO at East Coast College and Chair of Association of Colleges Mental Health Policy Group
Professor Steve West is the Vice-Chancellor of University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and Chair of the Universities UK Mental Health Working Group

Leave a Comment

Helen Butcher
Helen Butcher says:
9 March 2019 at 14:51

School student to university student or pupil to student would be more accurate and respectfl than than school child to student.

Helen Baker
Helen Baker says:
13 March 2019 at 07:45

Good to see the excellent progress Univerties are making but FE has a long way to go.  FE has appears to have no staff training for Autism and Anxiety or understanding of the negative mental impact untrained staff can have on those making the transition from school to college 

Dr Knut  Schroeder
Dr Knut Schroeder says:
15 March 2019 at 10:47

In addition to better collaboration, I believe it's extremly important that students in secondary school as well as at colleges and universities have easy access to high-quality health and wellbeing information, for example on university websites. Effective signposting is also really important, so that students know of ALL the support that is available to them. 

Gerard Laurain
Gerard Laurain says:
2 July 2019 at 18:53

CriticalArc has a free e-book to help Unis respond to the regulatory and competitive pressures, featuring leading UK Unis using technology to enhance student wellbeing and campus security.

We Are Together logo on pink background

We are together: students supporting the national effort against Covid-19

12 March 2021
Over the past year, staff and students at UK universities have played a vital role in fighting Covid-19 through research and supporting their local communities. Here, three students from across the UK share their stories.

Supporting care experienced students through university

8 October 2019
UUK's Amy Dicks sets out what universities can do to address the challenges care experienced people face when accessing and completing an undergraduate degree.