Challenges and debates Podcast by Sofia Triliva
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Challenges and debates Podcast by Sofia Triliva

All the issues outlined in the research cited above have impacted HEIs, and they are facing an unprecedented demand for counseling services. Nevertheless, although students report high levels of anxiety and depression and other mental health challenges, according to Shea, Wong, Nguyen, & Gonzalez (2019), there are barriers to seeking help in HE settings. These include the negative perceived value of counseling or psychotherapy, uneasiness in dealing with emotions, stigma, lack of awareness or knowledge on mental health issues, access delays, and cultural barriers. Similar barriers were found by Nash, Sixbey, An, & Puig (2017), who also report that disengagement and multiple stressors also constitute obstacles to help-seeking. Moreover, stigma continues to be a barrier for students with disabilities impeding their chances of fitting in (Bogart, Logan, Hospodar, & Woekel, 2019).


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This podcast will summarise the challenges and debates in meeting higher education students’ mental health and wellbeing needs. The summary is derived from the research conducted in the EMBRACE HE project.


Challenge 1: Unpredictability and insecurity

The mental health and adjustment challenges facing HES have been referred to as a mental health crisis (Chen et al., 2019), the crisis in higher education” (Hubble & Bolton, 2020), and a crisis in paradise (Blum, 2016). In turn, HEIs are facing an unprecedented demand for counselling services and a push for change in the teaching-learning realm of academic life. These crises have engendered debates within HEIs and society at large.

HEIs have confronted a myriad of challenges in recent years. One of the most significant challenges is unpredictability in the social and political landscape. In 2020, this challenge was significantly compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensuing syndemics, and Brexit. Unpredictability turned into the fear of contracting and spreading a deadly virus in HE classrooms and living quarters, moving from the classroom to online instruction, and the continually shifting healthcare, employment, political, and economic crises. Amid this unpredictability, HES, instructors, administrators, parents, and all involved in HE life found their everyday lives and futures upended by these unprecedented conditions. The sea of change in HE’s landscapes touched all academic communities in the world as our mutual vulnerabilities were recognised. Safeguarding lives, psyches, and futures became a priority.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced HEIs to recognise that the world is faced with catastrophic conditions, such as pandemics, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity. It has also shown that, in a world full of inequalities, solidarity plays an essential role in confronting such social problems (Hubble & Bolton, 2020). The pandemic has also confirmed long-standing arguments regarding the need for policies on health, wellbeing, and equality for accessing mental health and other services.

It is essential that, in these difficult and demanding circumstances, HEIs continue implementing practices that are effective for student, faculty, staff, and institutional wellbeing. HEIs must also try to innovate their pedagogical practices and teaching portfolio in ways that address the difficulties they are confronting. The social responsibility and social welfare functions of HE are particularly crucial nowadays.

HEIs must also provide an educational opportunity for highly diverse student bodies. They must help all students feel safe, welcome, and respected within their communities. Developing campus communities that listen discerningly and empathically will allow all involved to embrace each other’s humanity, using their voices responsibly and effectively. Living and working in increasingly complicated social environments and situations means we must prioritise a culture of innovative thinking and openness to new ideas, allowing solutions to emerge by implementing and evaluating programming that helps students navigate complexity.


Challenge 2: Mental health and wellbeing at a time of unfolding crises and syndemics

Stress is common these days, but young people are feeling the stress of 2020 most acutely. . Stress and anxiety have gone up dramatically, particularly for young people from low socioeconomic circumstances, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities.

The EMBRACE project team reviewed international empirical studies on HES mental health and wellbeing. They found that approximately one-third of first-year HES from eight countries including Australia, Belgium, Greece, Lithuania, Great Britain, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain, and the United States experience clinically diagnosable levels of anxiety, mood, and substance abuse problems (Auerbach et al., 2018). In a narrative review focusing on the impact of academic stress on HES’s mental health, academic performance, and wellbeing, Pascoe et al. (2020) reported that students from 72 countries were affected in their learning capacity, mental distress, sleep, and substance abuse.

When students struggle with stress and depression, HEIs are often the first point of contact for mental health needs.

For example, a 20-year-old male student at one small university in Europe emailed his professor in late October:

“I won’t be in class today or perhaps for a long time & I can’t get out of bed, and I am not functioning well at all for a long time now.”

The professor was alarmed and tried to find help for the student by corresponding with the counselling services and her department. Staff in the counselling centre were helpful.  The question of whether HE staff should intervene in such situations arose.

Two weeks later, after returning to his home to seek treatment, the student applied for a medical leave of absence from the university; his second in two years.

This student’s journey illustrates the intense struggles students can face, and the steps HEIs can take to manage what has been called a mental health crisis on campus.

Students and institutions grapple with issues such as the surge in alcohol and other drug abuse, sexual assault, struggles with anxiety, and adjustment difficulties. A multitude of crises have compounded the distress HES are experiencing (Auerbach, et al., 2018). However, it’s not just the crises that have shaken this generation; everyday stresses also come from social media pressures, relationship problems, and increased academic expectations. Moreover, the performance, evaluation, and competition culture that has become central for students, faculty members, and HEIs has mounted pressures on campuses throughout Europe (Boyadjieva, & Ilieva-Trichkova,  2019)

More than 60 per cent of HES said they had experienced overwhelming anxiety in the past year, according to the latest publications focusing on the mental health needs of HES. More than 40 per cent said they felt so depressed they had difficulty functioning (Auerbach, et al., 2018; Hubble & Bolton, 2020).

Money problems exacerbate students’ worries. Mental health professionals say HE students have experienced socioeconomic burdens on a different scale to many of their predecessors. They grew up during the recession of 2008 to 2015, have seen family members lose jobs and homes, and are now confronting the loss of employment, income, and an uncertain work future. The great uncertainty about career prospects, along with the pressure to excel academically or risk losing job opportunities, has intensified dramatically (Auerbach, et al., 2018; Bassett, 2020).

HES’s everyday experiences, performance, and identities are socially constructed between two poles: they are seen as winners or losers. This dichotomy has placed tremendous pressure on HES, feeding their anxiety, depression, and distress.

As students encounter more mental health problems, they have sought help in record numbers (Hubble & Bolton, 2020). Between the autumn of 2010 and the spring of 2020, the number of students who visited campus counselling centres increased significantly(Hubble & Bolton, 2020). Many expect their schools to help them cope. However, many HES still do not seek MH services, and stigma continues to be a problem. Multiple dilemmas ensue for HEIs; how to best meet students’ needs while diminishing stigma and educating students regarding mental health difficulties.

“You want a school that treats you for the person you are and gives you the help you deserve,” said Katia, a 19-year-old first-year student who received counselling for problems adjusting to her university. “You don’t want a school that shuts you off or feels like it’s not their responsibility to take care of you.”

When researching services in HEIs across Europe, the EMBRACE team found that there has been a rise in inquiries and demand regarding counselling and mental health services.

HEIs have helped drive demand for mental health services, pouring money into education and training to help students identify problems and learn where to turn for help. However, critics say that many universities have not adequately prepared for the increasing demand, leaving some students frustrated Cornish et al, 2017).

In some countries in Europe and around the world, mental health service provision is over-stretched (Cornish, 2020). Students typically must endure a long wait for their first appointment with a counsellor. Many HEIs began restricting the number of times students could see a counsellor, from unlimited visits to 12.

One director of health and wellness in a large university stated: “As we approach exams, it feels like we’re running a crisis clinic rather than a counselling centre”. She would like to employ more counsellors, but the funding is not available.

Many campuses are struggling to keep up, forcing some institutions to rethink their treatment strategies. Online mental health services have been the subject of debate for the past 10 years. Some HEIs have previously been sceptical of the merits of online treatment (Lattie et al., 2019). However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online therapy may be the only help available.

To address students’ mental health needs, staff at counselling centres have implemented behavioural assessment and referral teams, aiming to identify students’ problems quickly, advocate for students, and direct them to the right service. Triage, step, tier systems, and other prevention-oriented programming have been put in place primarily because one-to-one therapy and counselling are not the answer to all social and emotional problems. It has been found that about a quarter of the students who seek counselling do not need a therapist. Instead, students often need better time-management or anxiety-reducing skills, or wellness programming. The EMBRACE toolkit presents how comprehensive step/tier systems can be organized.

HEIs worldwide are trying to find the most effective interventions for most students as quickly as possible. Social and emotional skills training, peer-support systems, and wellness programming are all services currently provided in HEIs.

For example, Maria, a senior chemistry student, utilised the university’s online resources to help her deal with a personal incident. After using the program, she said she was encouraged to start a mindfulness practice and enrol in yoga and art classes to help reduce her anxiety. She has also served as a peer counsellor, an experience that has helped her clarify her interests leading to a decision regarding a career path.

As Maria states: “This program fundamentally changed who I am and how I approach my life.” She plans to pursue graduate work in genetic counselling. “I may not remember the many things that I learned in biochemistry class. Yet,  I’ll remember what I’ve learned about empathic communication, interviewing, and listening actively for the rest of my life.”

Many students may not enjoy the benefits of counselling until they overcome more pressing obstacles. For example, low-income and first-generation students, some of whom arrive on campus without adequate financial means, find it understandably challenging to concentrate on studies. HEIs have developed ‘safeguarding’ models of care and provide an assortment of services outside of traditional talk therapy that help students address their overall wellbeing. Students can find many of those services at their HEI’s health and wellness centres, which house counselling offices alongside financial assistance or advice, a campus food pantry, and more.

Notably, social challenges such as performance pressure and constant evaluations exacerbate mental health issues. High tuition fees and the cost of living add to students’ financial difficulties, hampering their studies. They are also tied to the student-as-consumer approach in HE, which impacts on performance. Following the discourse on education quality, contemporary universities have employed neoliberal systems that reinforce students’ social exclusion and create pressure to prioritise excellence at the expense of social purposes (Mampaey, 2017). This is evidenced by the high costs of university tuition, which have led the British government to define students as consumers (Alsod & Jones, 2016). Additionally, admission criteria exclude those who do not have an excellent academic performance or economic solvency. As the costs of attaining, HE degrees increase, students and their families are faced with a lifetime of debt.

Student assessments create pressure and contribute to stress levels and mental health problems. Therefore, it is crucial to question the design of higher education systems and whether they are a source of discomfort and social exclusion. These issues highlight the contradiction between the social purpose and scope of higher education. Achieving sustainability requires ethical policies where students, faculty, and administrative personnel engage in interactive dialogue and involvement with their community to impact society. Such engagement becomes a conduit for promulgating cultural shifts, imbuing students with the spirit of collaboration, and impacting society.


Challenge 3: Teaching, learning and HES’s future

HES’s mental health concerns are closely linked to performance difficulties, dropping out, and other academic challenges (Bruffaerts et al., 2018). Moreover, HE landscapes across the world have changed, highlighting the need to embrace teaching and learning challenges. HEI classrooms are composed of students who learn differently. Instructors and curriculum experts must determine pedagogy based on the learner and establish ways to meet different learning styles. It is the HEIs’ responsibility to develop pathways to success for different learning communities, across the age and experience spectrum, if persistence, graduation, and HEIs sustainability are to be attained. However, intentional strategies for engaging learners and serving all students are not in place in many HEIs.

According to various researchers (Bassett, 2020; Cachia et al., 2010; Fook & Sidhu, 2015; Pomerantz & Brooks, 2017), challenges include:


  • Making HE relevant: teaching and learning for competencies and sustainable employment.
  • Student engagement and motivation for research and innovation.
  • Improving drop-out rates and other forms of attrition.
  • Embracing work-integrated learning.
  • Enhancing pedagogical practise via the use of technology.
  • Making learning student-centred.
  • Embracing active learning and collaborative practices that are connected to students’ lives.
  • Adaptive teaching-learning designed with students.
  • Integrating teaching-learning approaches that enable critical and creative thinking.
  • Academic integrity: grappling with cheating and plagiarism.
  • Personal development.
  • Promoting equality.
  • Transformative teaching.
  • Education for the public good and social solidarity.
  • Supporting students to embrace change and transformation: from ‘adrift’, ‘disoriented’ students to active citizens who can create change.


Three years ago, a professor at an HEI in Greece had a student who passed an entire semester’s exams without speaking in class. The student found it challenging to engage in learning activities, despite having gained access to the university through competitive entrance exams. This professor often debates with colleagues about how to best motivate students and help them to engage. Discussions about “whose problem is this?” and “what is to blame?” reverberate through HE campuses the world over.

Another challenge for HE instructors is that many students agree that HE is essential but remain unconvinced that they will learn useful ideas during their studies. HE instructors must create a world of young people who are skilled at analysis and receptive to complexity, yet many students cringe at these concepts. Moreover, we need to understand how young people from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds acquire and use knowledge as well as how their identities can influence and impede learning. This is challenging in classes which contain hundreds of students.

Teaching material that speaks to students’ experiences, enabling the leading and facilitating of discussion while continually assessing what works might seem like an obvious approach. However, such methods have yet to be widely adopted in HE. Learning theorists have suggested that constructivist methods, which prize active student participation over the passive receipt of information, are intensely valuable.

Another paradox of life at large HEIs is the potential absence of a community. Creating a campus community for learning, support, and relating with both instructors and peers builds fundamental connections within HEIs.

How to best serve a generation of students as they face evolving challenges that stem from changing demographics, rising income inequality, political tumult, and doubts about whether the world can overcome its deepest divides is a debate that is ongoing in HEIs around Europe and the world.

The queries that remain unanswered include:

  1. How do educators sustain standards of excellence while adapting to changing circumstances?
  2. How can the value of liberal arts be demonstrated when public discourse increasingly defines educational value in terms of initial income?
  3. How will higher education create a genuinely inclusive environment for a diverse group of students who question the expectation that they should accept traditional teaching and learning modes?

The EMBRACE toolkit tackles some of these issues.

While our institutions have diverse missions, certain universal principles should guide higher education in this new era.

We must welcome diverse populations and create learning environments in which all of our students can succeed and fulfil their needs. Including immigrant and refugee populations is a goal in Europe ( Providing students from different backgrounds with opportunities to learn and improve their lives is paramount in our inequality ravaged world. We must teach students to embrace multiple perspectives and viewpoints as critical learning opportunities, while valuing their personal experiences.

Our institutions must serve as laboratories where students, faculty, staff, deans, and provosts collaborate and compromise to create sustainable futures that balance idealism with financial realities. We must help our students find meaning in their education by providing a range of options and opportunities for applying learning effectively. Embracing new possibilities created by technology can be part of these efforts.

As the world changes, educational institutions must lead courageously. All parties with an investment in higher education should have a voice in these conversations: students who are demanding a more relevant education; parents who are making emotional and material investments in their children; faculty members who are protecting academic freedom, encouraging and enhancing learning, and contributing to the wellbeing of students and the broader community. We all must learn from and relate to each other, processes upon which education and flourishing depend (Gill & Gergen, 2020).

As we look for ways to transform a world upended by uncertainty and tremendous loss, leaders must rethink social policies, including education, and address long-standing structural inequality issues, poverty, and exclusion. An impending global economic collapse is likely to have drastic consequences for the funding of education, public services, and individuals’ livelihoods. During this time, global commitments to higher education must be maintained and resources directed to those hardest hit socially, economically, and educationally. Following the crises in HE, educators and leaders are urged to address HES’s needs through solidarity, compassion, and appreciation of our shared humanity. Planning against increased inequalities in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic is essential.

In a world that has to come together in the face of multiple health, social, environmental, and economic crises, HEIs must continue to reach out to a challenged society and world, acting as a voice of empowerment, support, safeguarding, and relevant educational experience.