Improving HE student wellbeing services with good data governance

andrew cormack
Andrew Cormack
Headshot of Jim Keane
Jim Keane

How can higher education leaders create responsive wellbeing services without being intrusive?

Two students talk on a lawn on campus.

Student wellbeing is a key priority for the Higher Education (HE) sector. The Stepchange framework, created by Universities UK, calls on all universities to make wellbeing a strategic priority which is “foundational to all aspects of university life, for all students and all staff.”   

Good data governance provides the foundation to build new wellbeing support systems that can respond to the needs of students – helping more people more quickly while maximising the use of available resources.  

Why data-supported wellbeing is strategically important now 

The pandemic effect 

Most current undergraduates will have had their education disrupted at some point by the pandemic. A May 2022 University College London report found that 64% of students reported that the pandemic had “a negative impact on their mental health”.  

This means university life will be even more of a change than it was for earlier cohorts: getting back to 'normal' in addition to independent study, living away from home and managing their finances in a cost-of-living crisis is a challenge for many.   

In 2015 the IPPR found that 94% of universities reported increasing demand for counselling services. Post-pandemic, demand has increased significantly. In the 2021/22 academic year, access to NHS mental health services for 18-25-year-olds was almost a fifth higher than pre-pandemic levels

Digital expectations 

Students use data-informed apps and systems every day, whether shopping, on social media, or booking tickets. They understand how data is used and how it benefits them.  

If their new university does not use data intelligently to improve their day-to-day experience, students could be disappointed, which reflects badly on the institution.  

Existing wellbeing processes are pre-pandemic  

Despite the fundamentally changed circumstances in the world and the HE sector, wellbeing services at most universities are built with a pre-pandemic context in mind. Systems and procedures are based on face-to-face contact and staff knowledge of their students. 

But the way HE courses are run has changed – Jisc’s HE digital experience insights survey in 2022 (pdf) found that:  

  • 45% of students are studying remotely at least part of the time (37% blended, 8% completely remote) 
  • 82% of students access lectures as recordings 
  • 50% received feedback from lecturers via online portals

The survey also documented that many students struggle with isolation, as new learning technologies changed social interaction with course colleagues and staff significantly. 

Less face-to-face contact could result in fewer opportunities for staff to identify students’ wellbeing needs. Providing support is, therefore, become more challenging. Data can help HE organisations face these changes more effectively.  

Using data to improve wellbeing processes  

Finding ways of engaging earlier with students who may or may not be struggling with wellbeing issues is a challenge for HEIs for two main reasons: they don’t have systems in place to understand and act on the data they hold, and they are unsure what action to take for fear of making a mistake.  

All HE organisations hold data that could help them work with students to improve wellbeing outcomes. It’s possible to start small, build processes and test systems in ways which help students and HEIs.  We work from the principle ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’.  

HE organisations are already capturing data for when students: 

  • Log in to systems 
  • Access learning spaces 
  • Are  seen by services 

Bringing this information together is an important step. But it’s important to ensure student support teams, and tutors know how to use it responsibly. Even this can have significant benefits.  With more sophisticated systems, broader actions are possible. 

For example, as part of the Office for Students Mental Health Analytics project, AI was used to predict students who might experience low wellbeing at Northumbria University.  

Students considered moderate risk were sent emails highlighting opportunities to address challenges: those thought to be higher risk were contacted directly to see how the university could help. By using data, university staff were able to contact students proactively, potentially reducing their own workload by taking early action. 

This approach aligns with the expectations of students for technologically driven communications and support. They expect quick, simple communication on their terms.  

HE organisations must know how each student wants to be contacted, along with which information they are happy for an institution to use (and in what context). Collecting and then using this information correctly is vital if a student is to trust outreach from an institution. 

Better outcomes from better data governance 

Creating a data governance framework that will enable and improve wellbeing services starts with the most crucial element of all data: HE organisations need to understand what they hold and how it can be used. 

Each organisation should review:  

  • What information it holds, where and in what formats 
  • How students and staff expect these data to be used 
  • What privacy notices and/or consents apply   
  • Whether historical data can be used 

HE organisations can use a data protection impact assessment (pdf). They can also develop and assess new ideas for using data to support wellbeing using a purpose/transparency examination (pdf)

Data governance is the first step toward wellbeing excellence 

The challenge for HE organisations today is balancing needs against resources, using a light touch with data whilst also building systems that help more of their students by providing timely and appropriate support. 

We suggest HE organisations start with an examination of their existing data governance, student and staff expectations, and service provision.  

This provides the basis for a system of data collection, processing and storage which future-proofs an organisation. This solid foundation will help to create wellbeing services which are responsive, unobtrusive and efficient.  

Read our framework and code of practice for data-supported wellbeing – which outlines how to promote ethical, effective, and legally compliant processes that help HE organisations manage risk and resources. 

About the authors

andrew cormack
Andrew Cormack
Chief regulatory adviser, Jisc
Headshot of Jim Keane
Jim Keane
Data engineering solutions manager and senior technical consultant

Alongside the other senior analytics consultants, I support the delivery of learning analytics into educational organisations from pre-sales to deployment and maintaining customer relations. I also use my experience of working in student facing services to provide advice on guidance on using analytics for wellbeing.