Pastoral support is the range of services provided for students’ emotional, psychological and spiritual wellbeing. While most institutions will have services dedicated to this support, staff also have a critical role to play.
All university students are entitled to enjoy their educational journey. For high retention rates, positive student experiences and increased engagement, pastoral care in higher education (HE) needs to be revitalised. Here’s how to kickstart the support:
Understanding the importance
The cost of not implementing better pastoral support is far more devastating than doing so.
Regular and ongoing engagement with students is of critical importance as awareness-raising and campaigning activity can make people aware of institutional policies and procedures. When you empower students, your reputation will only grow positively.
- Factors such as caring responsibilities, disability, mental health, background, gender and family relationships have the potential to seriously impact upon a student’s academic achievement and general wellbeing. We need to support them.
- Many students develop their political, cultural, social, sexual and spiritual identities while in HE. That journey won't always be an easy one and showing them it’s okay to express themselves is essential.
- Your reaction to the issues students present and your ability to understand their experiences are crucial in enabling them to work through their problems effectively.
- You have a legal responsibility to ensure you protect students from discrimination and harassment. What will you have in place to ensure a preventive approach can be implemented quickly?
Students will benefit from an approach to pastoral care that recognises their individual circumstances and can meet their unique needs. A student who receives relevant and timely support in dealing with the problems of everyday life is more likely to have the motivation to succeed.
How to make strides toward better pastoral support
Over 25% of UK students experience a negative change in their mental wellbeing when beginning their HE journey. Bettering internal efficiencies starts with recognising where you can make improvements.
Key to supporting student wellbeing is shared responsibility and effective use of expertise and resources. The deployment of better pastoral care and support is a marathon, not a sprint. Here are some considerations for anybody actively working in higher education.
Develop active listening skills: Some students may be reluctant to talk about personal issues. You'll need to listen to them and whatever they need to say so they can begin to move forward. It’s vital victim-survivors feel heard at every step of the process.
Ensure your students know they can approach you if they encounter any problems with which they require help. When you’re not available, make sure there’s a place they can go for support. Whether through an online platform or telephone helpline, it should be accessible.
Improve your understanding of diversity: The broader your knowledge of the issues that might affect your students, the higher chance it is they’ll feel comfortable talking to you. You want to inspire confidence that you understand what they’re saying and can resolve it.
This is especially important if they’re feeling isolated, which could be more likely among Black and Minority Ethnic students, students dealing with mental health issues or students who are marginalised for some other reason at the institution.
Your ability to connect with them, rather than being seen as someone else who doesn't understand, is vital to their ability to make progress - and the institutions.
Be aware of stereotypes: Do you understand the issues that affect particular groups of students? It can be useful in helping you to provide appropriate support, but it’s important not to assume every individual in that group will have the same experience. Everybody encounters issues differently and should have tailored solutions to tackle that.
Know your student support services: Your institution will have several services to support students, such as a disability support team, chaplaincy/faith advisers, student finance and welfare advisers. Make sure you know about the full range of support available and how to access it so you can point students in the right direction. It may also be useful to learn about student networks and groups.
Cultivate emotional detachment: While it’s important to build rapport with your students, you also need to avoid becoming too closely involved with their problems to the point where the student passes responsibility for resolving the issue over to you.
This can be particularly difficult when you have invested significant energy in putting yourself in their shoes or experienced similar situations yourself. But you can be an ally to support them.
Be seen: If you belong to a minority group in your institution and are comfortable sharing your experiences, you may like to consider becoming an outspoken ally. The visible presence of people from minority groups who have succeeded in academia can encourage and provide reassurance for students feeling marginalised or isolated.
Reinforcing reporting and complaints process
In the Office for Students’ (OfS) latest annual review, it highlighted mental health, hate crime and sexual misconduct as some of the biggest areas of concern for universities.
The Good Practice Framework handles student complaints and academic appeals and is built on existing good practice identified by providers, students’ unions, complainants and the OIA. It should be followed closely to ensure students have accessible support when they need it most.
Vulnerable victim-survivors may be particularly susceptible to getting lost in any complex system and inadvertently forgotten if services don’t have effective and consistent ways of sharing information.
To enable applicants and students to reach their full potential and feel confident that any difficulties will be met with understanding. Institutions should also ensure there’s a commitment to providing appropriate support services in a discrete and student-friendly manner that focuses on the victim-survivor. All in one place with signposted guidance in the meantime.
Improved student retention, prevented trauma, increased satisfaction, positive wellbeing and safer student experience can all be achieved by better pastoral support and resources. Want to learn more about how you promote positive student wellbeing and experience?