What is a Charter?

In this context, a Charter is a document outlining a set of principles that universities can commit to working towards in order to improve the mental health and wellbeing of their communities. 

  • Charter Programme: a voluntary improvement programme, which supports staff within participating universities to understand, demonstrate and share good practice, take action to improve their approach and prepare for accreditation. 
  • Charter Award: accreditation process for programme members. Through a process of self-assessment and an onsite visit, the university and Award assessment teams assess the university’s progress towards the principles in the Charter to inform ongoing improvement and recognise excellent approaches to student and staff mental health with a charter mark.

Why has Student Minds developed the Charter?

There has been great political, public and professional concern in recent years about student mental health. The mental wellbeing reported by university students is among the lowest across the population. The higher education sector has seen a dramatic rise in help-seeking, with some institutions reporting that one in four of their students are either being seen or are waiting to be seen by the university counselling service (IPPR, 2017). Whilst further research is required, experts have connected this to a range of academic, social and financial pressures. 

Mental health is a critical factor in student and staff retention and success. Universities, as a community setting, present an opportunity to change people’s health outcomes for life. As well as responding to illness, we need to promote and improve the mental health and wellbeing of all members of the university community.

At Student Minds we have been working to improve the mental health and wellbeing of students and university communities since 2008. We now work with over 120 universities across the UK to transform the state of student mental health. All of our work is supported by our national research, policy and co-production with students. Change is happening but it needs to be made at a strategic level. 

In 2017, Student Minds took part in the Universities UK-led programme to develop and pilot a strategic framework, #StepChange (refreshed in 2020 as Stepchange: Mentally Healthy Universities), aiming to encourage more universities to take a ‘whole-university approach’ to student wellbeing.

We are much encouraged by the progress being made on this issue over the last decade. The Charter will be an important tool to support and encourage cultural change in universities, improve wellbeing outcomes for students, university staff and their local communities and ensure mental health does not fall off the higher education policy agenda.

What impact will the Charter have?

The University Mental Health Charter aims to support and encourage universities to achieve a whole-organisation approach to mental health and wellbeing. There is mounting evidence that achieving the principles outlined in the University Mental Health Charter framework will lead to improved mental health and wellbeing outcomes for staff and students, and a range of individual and organisational-level outcomes that we know are important to promoting positive mental health and wellbeing. Examples of outcomes include confidence to respond to mental health concerns, improved health behaviours, effective mental health services and wide and cohesive networks of support.

There is strong evidence to suggest that settings-based approaches to mental health – that recognise how personal, environmental, social factors can contribute to our health and wellbeing – are required to effectively prevent mental illness and promote mental health. The principles in the Charter framework are based on a rigorous research and consultation process, drawing on primary and secondary research and the lived experiences of staff, students and perspectives of mental health practitioners. It reflects the most up-to-date understanding of the best approaches to improving mental health and wellbeing outcomes for students and staff across all aspects of university life.

Improved mental health outcomes have the potential to lead to a range of benefits for staff and students.

For example, mental health outcomes have been linked to:

  • Improved student recruitment, retention, satisfaction, progression, attainment and employability for students.
  • Improved staff performance, reduced sickness absence, lower staff turnover and higher levels of creativity.

We recognise that universities are complex organisations and that genuine cultural change often emerges as the result of multiple influencing factors, as opposed to being determined by a single, top-down intervention. Change can be embedded when people have the space to come together, engage in honest reflection, share ideas and collaborate. 

How does the Charter create change?

The Charter Programme and Award support universities to achieve a whole-university approach by:

  1. Providing a framework for universities to come together to better understand good practice.
  2. Supports universities to identify areas of strength and improvement and effectively target limited resources in response to a complex problem.
  3. Facilitates shared learning across the sector. 
  4. Encourages the universities to go beyond baseline requirements, invest in ongoing improvement and develop excellent practice.

Participation in the programme has already led to improvements in strategy, policy and practice at our three pilot universities. We are working alongside Advance HE to continue to test our theory of change and evidence the impact of the Charter on participating universities and the sector as a whole.

Who is the Charter for and who is responsible for implementing the Charter at my university?

Anyone who wants to create positive change in mental health 

The University Mental Health Charter is for anyone who wants to create positive change in mental health at university. It advocates for a whole-university approach to mental health, which means that universities must promote the mental health of both staff and students if they are to create real, sustained change. It also means that implementing the Charter needs a university-wide effort and that each member of the university – including leadership and the student body – has a role to play in responding to mental illness and promoting a mentally healthy university environment. The Charter Programme activities and events are open to any staff and students within member institutions.

Key contacts for the Programme and Award

Each university will be required to nominate 1 or 2 staff and a student to be the key contact for the programme and to lead the university’s submission to the Award. To engage most successfully with the Award, staff from across the university will support the self-assessment process and will be invited to attend panels and focus groups with the assessment teams.

University leadership 

Whereas much of the work to achieve a whole-university approach will be undertaken by a wide range of actors, university leadership is key in creating a shared vision, supporting cohesion and collaboration across the university, clarifying roles and responsibilities and ensuring everyone has a say in developing an approach. Universities UK’s Stepchange: Mentally Healthy Universities gives helpful guidance on the role of university leaders in this space. 

How has the Charter been funded and what are the costs involved?

Start up funding

The Charter has been supported by start-up funding of £100,000 from the UPP Foundation, the registered charity founded by University Partnerships Programme (UPP). An additional £145,000 grant was awarded to Student Minds from the Office for Students (OfS) to support enhanced research, consultation and student engagement in the development of the Charter, and enhanced digital infrastructure and evaluation.

Future funding

Beyond these generous development grants, Student Minds will be welcoming additional partners and funders in order to upscale the programme. For example, we have recently partnered with the Charlie Watkins Foundation to develop resources to empower students to use the Charter to create change and Jisc is partnering with us to promote the Charter Programme, and develop digital resources for universities.

Like many charities, Student Minds is supported by a range of donations, fundraising and grants, and we generate our own funding through training delivery. Explore a full list of our funders.

University membership fees

In order to sustainably deliver the guidance, support, training, and peer assessment processes that a robust quality improvement and accreditation scheme requires, the universities pay a fee to join the Charter Programme and go through the Charter Award assessment. Universities will pay an annual fee to be part of the programme. Universities are required to continue to pay this fee up to and including the year that they go through the Award. Universities will continue to pay this fee after receiving their Award outcome and continue to access programme benefits as they maintain or improve on their Award status. In addition to the programme fee, there will be a one-off fee when the university takes part in the Award.

Fees have been developed in consultation with the sector and will be invested back into the Charter’s support and assessment process. Each year, we will publish the fees in an information pack which can be found on the Charter Programme page.

Is the Charter compulsory or regulatory or used to rank universities?

The University Mental Health Charter is a voluntary programme. It is not legally binding and participating in the Award is not a requirement of any regulatory authority.

Although the risks of universities taking no action around mental health are high, the risks that come with taking action without the necessary consideration are equally great. To ensure safety, policies and interventions need to be implemented with careful assessment of local need and risk, appropriately resourced, monitored and supported by qualified staff. A voluntary, as opposed to regulatory, approach reduces the chance of a surge of activity in this area that is ineffective, or worse, dangerous.

The Charter does not focus on setting minimum standards as it does not aim solely to reduce mental illness, but also to create environments that promote the good mental health and wellbeing of the whole university community. It aims to encourage, rather than inhibit, innovation and incentivises the development of excellent approaches that go beyond minimum standards. As such, the Charter challenges institutions to be ambitious in their approach to improving student mental health and not settle for arbitrary targets.

The Charter Award is not designed to facilitate competition or ranking. 

Award levels aim to celebrate excellent approaches to mental health in order to share with the wider sector as well as encourage and provide a structure for ongoing improvement once universities have achieved the Award.

How is the Charter linked with other frameworks and projects around mental health in higher education, such as UUK’s StepChange?

The Charter will have the most value by being embedded within a wider change programme. 

The Charter consultation has supported the development of UUK’s StepChange: Mentally Healthy Universities, launched in 2020. The Charter’s themes map onto the four domains and five enablers within this framework, which is a key tool for supporting university leaders in achieving a strategic, whole-university approach.

The Charter will continue to draw on and share learning with key organisations and projects driving work in this field, now and in future. This will include the work of AMOSSHE, the Healthy Universities Network, SMaRTen, Mind’s Mentally Healthy Universities Programme, the innovations that emerge from the recent OfS Challenge Competition, the Catalyst projects on PGR Student Mental Health and the evidence collected by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing.

How is the Charter linked with other accreditation schemes and statutory/ regulatory requirements?

We understand that universities participate in many programmes that aim to improve the mental health of their communities and related areas such as access and participation and equality, diversity and inclusion. Charter Award assessment teams look positively on participation in programmes such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists’/ British Psychological Society APPTS, NUS Scotland Think/ Positive Mental Health Agreements initiative, Mind’s Mental Health at Work Commitment and the Race Equality/ Athena Swan Charters and more. These provide good evidence of a university’s commitment to work towards key themes in the Charter, especially when embedded as part of a whole-university approach to mental health and wellbeing. 

Equally, work towards the Charter will help to inform and enhance work to meet statutory, regulatory and funding requirements, such as Access and Participation Plans and Welsh Student Charters.

Is my institution eligible to join?

The Charter framework can be used across the higher education sector

The University Mental Health Charter was developed with staff and students from a diverse range of organisations. As it is based on principles, and is non-prescriptive, much of the Charter will have relevance across a range of organisation types and contexts.

Eligibility criteria

The Charter Programme and Award are institutional-level initiatives for UK-based higher education providers with the powers to validate and award their own degrees. Universities will also need to submit a signed letter of support from their VC or equivalent. You can find all the eligibility requirements in the programme information pack, which you can download here.

We recognise that other types of providers of higher education, such as further education colleges and alternative providers, have unique contexts, challenges and resources available to commit to this work. We want to make sure we have an assessment process that reflects this context and adds value to these providers, developed through proper consultation and piloting with these providers. We will be exploring the possibility of piloting an adapted Charter Award process for other higher education providers in the future.

What is the time and resource commitment to join the Charter Programme and Award? 

Resources

Work towards achieving genuine cultural change and embedded mental health and wellbeing in every aspect of the university requires significant time and resource commitments from across the university.In addition to this, participation in the programme and Award requires:

  • 1 or 2 staff and a student to be the key contact for the programme and to lead the university’s submission to the Award. 
  • Staff from across the university to support the self-assessment process and attend panels and focus groups with the assessment teams as part of the onsite visit.

Timeline

Universities will have access to the self-assessment and guidance around how to approach this from the start of the academic year. The time taken to undertake the self-assessment process will vary from institution to institution and the Student Minds team will work with you to set a reasonable timeframe. The universities involved in piloting the Award completed this within six months. However, pilot universities said they would have benefited from more time to involve more staff and students in the process, to engage in genuine reflective practice and have the opportunity to address some development areas identified through the process before submitting. From submission of the self-assessment to receiving the improvement report, this takes 9 weeks.

What are the outcomes of the Award?

There are 5 possible Award outcomes: 

  1. Award
  2. Award with Merit
  3. Award with Distinction
  4. Award with conditions
  5. No Award. 

Award holders will be able to use the Charter logo in university communications and marketing and will be highlighted on the Award holders page on our website.

We do not expect all universities to be reaching Award with Merit or Distinction on the first assessment, but hope the levels provide a clear structure for continued improvement and progression. Download our information pack for more details about the outcomes criteria.

How long does the Award last?

Award levels last 5 years, and universities will be expected to submit a reassessment in the 5th year in order to maintain or improve on their Award status.

What does the Charter tell me about my university?

If your university is part of the University Mental Health Charter Programme, this means that they are committed to achieving cultural change in student and staff mental health and wellbeing across the whole university. This means creating accessible, inclusive and effective support services, as well as a learning, working and living environment that prevents mental illness and promotes good mental health. 

Charter Award universities have demonstrated to our independent assessment teams that they have made sufficient progress towards embedding the Charter’s principles of good practice across the university and that they have an honest awareness of their areas for future improvement. 

How are students and Students’ Unions involved in the Charter Award?

Students

Students have been involved throughout the Charter’s development process, from sharing their experiences in workshops, focus groups and surveys to shape the Charter framework and beyond. The Charter framework encourages universities to embed student voice in developing and reviewing mental health strategy, policy, interventions and services. Universities will need to evidence that they have worked in partnership with students in order to achieve the Award.

Student Leads

In 2020, Student Minds convened a panel of students to develop resources to support students to use the Charter to create change at their universities, and to ensure that students are central to the Award assessment process. Based on their recommendations, each university will nominate a student lead to support their university’s application for the Award. The student lead can submit evidence of students’ perspectives of their university’s performance alongside the university’s self-assessment. Each assessment team has two staff and one student representative and assessment teams speak to students during their assessment visit.

Students’ Unions

Students’ Unions (SU’s), Associations, Guilds or equivalent play a fundamental role in ensuring student experiences and perspectives are considered as part of the university’s journey towards a whole-university approach. We would expect to see universities and their SUs working closely in partnership to shape strategy, policy and practice and in undertaking the Award process. Student Minds works with SUs to understand and carry out their role in a whole-university approach as part of the Student Minds SUs programme.

I am a student or staff member, how can I find out more about getting involved?

If you are a university staff member interested in leading your university’s application to the Charter Award, you can find out more on our Charter Programme page.

If your university is already part of the programme, you can get in touch with your key contact to find out more about how to get involved. Alternatively, email charter@studentminds.org.uk and we will put you in touch with your key contact.

What is the evidence underpinning the Charter framework?

In 2019, we undertook a large-scale research and consultation process. We collected qualitative and quantitative data from a wide range of staff and students, with full ethical oversight from Derby University ethics committee. Alongside this, we undertook a thorough literature review. A team of experienced researchers helped to collect and analyse the data, and they have started to publish research in academic journals. You can find links within the themes of the Charter.

Will the Charter framework be reviewed and updated?

Future work will ensure that the Charter will be iterative, meaning it will be reviewed and refreshed as new evidence emerges. There will be a minor review each year and a major review every 3-5 years, depending on need.

We are always happy to hear your thoughts and feedback. Please contact Charter@studentminds.org.uk

What about the responsibilities of the NHS and Schools?

At Student Minds we understand that mental health is an issue that expands far beyond universities and that partnership working with schools and colleges, the NHS, graduate employers and others is crucial. Whilst this Charter is focused on university settings, alongside this work, Student Minds’ strategy and our partners programming involves working on national, systems level work to improve NHS provision for students, and projects to bridge transitions between life stages. We will ensure strong connectivity with these other programmes for a long term strategic approach.

Which universities are involved in the Charter Programme and Award?

Applications for the Charter programme and Award for 2021/ 2022 are now closed. You can see a full list of programme members on the Charter Programme page.

Should I apply to the Charter Programme even if the university is not ready to go through the Award?

We understand that some universities are at the start of their journey towards a whole-university approach to mental health or may not yet have the time or resource to commit to undertaking the full Award assessment. The intention of the Charter Programme is to allow universities the flexibility to approach the Award at a pace and in a way that is appropriate to their context. 

By joining the programme, universities can benefit from advice and support from Student Minds and others working towards a whole-university approach to support them to improve their practice and prepare for the Award. There is no deadline to submit for the Award once a university has joined the programme.

What is the process for achieving the Award and who will undertake the assessment?

An outline of the process for the Award and a description of the assessment teams are provided on the Charter Award page.  

Further details of the process will be provided to programme members in an Award Handbook when they join the programme.

What happens once universities receive an Award?

Universities that achieve an Award will:

  • Receive a communications pack with instructions on how to use the Charter logo on their communications and marketing materials.
  • Recognised on the Award-holders page of the University Mental Health Charter website.

Ongoing improvement

Universities will be required to remain members of the Charter Programme to retain their Award status. As members of the programme, Award holders will be able to access support as they work to address the assessment team’s feedback, continue to develop their practice and work towards the next level of the Award. There is also the opportunity for them to be an embedded and active member of the programme community of practice, being in a position to share areas of recognised excellent practice with other members. Student Minds will support universities to share examples of excellent practice with programme members and the wider higher education sector.

Annual progress update

There is no annual reassessment, but universities will be expected to complete an online progress report on an annual basis so that Student Minds and the university can work together to monitor and inform the university’s ongoing improvement. This is also intended to reduce the burden of reassessment at the end of the 5 year period, as the university will have been collecting evidence of the effectiveness of its approach on an ongoing basis.

Reassessment

The Award is valid for 5 years, in which year universities will be required to go through reassessment to maintain, or improve on their Award status.