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A conversation about mental health at University: Re-thinking the classification of students-as-customers

Since universities in England were first able to charge up to £9,000 per year back in 2012, there have been countless conversations had and articles published about how students should now be viewed as ‘customers’ of the University.

This classification of students hasn’t been dreamt up by journalists or marketers – in fact, it has been widely accepted by students themselves, with a Universities UK survey in 2017 finding that half of students now see themselves as customers of their university.

As university marketing specialists, we can see why this viewpoint has been so widely adopted – after all, stripping everything right back, a sum is paid and a service is delivered.

This simplistic visualisation of the student as a customer has also become popular as it allows marketing teams to consider the journey of a prospective and current student as one of a traditional customer (awareness, interest, consideration, purchase, retention, advocacy). This includes activities such as getting the University’s brand and messaging in front of prospective students, arming them with information that helps them to choose the university, welcoming them at open days and following up with communications that already begin to make them feel part of that University’s student community.

With student enrollment targets to hit, this commoditisation of students is unsurprising. However, although this ‘customer’ classification can help a University to both onboard and nurture many students, there is a danger here that this approach oversimplifies what is actually a very complex transaction at a critical time in the life of each applicant – particularly from a mental health standpoint.


A huge change at a critical time

There is a plethora of published research that shows that the UK’s young adult population is at most risk of establishing mental health issues.

For example, the incidences of mood, anxiety, psychotic, personality, eating, and substance use disorders peak in adolescence and early adulthood: 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24 (Universities UK).

In fact, the number of first-year students arriving at university who report a mental health condition is now five times what it was 10 years ago. There has also been a trebling in the number of students dropping out of university with mental health problems, signalling that many students that either arrive with mental health issues or develop them soon after enrolling do not receive the support that they need.

Combine the above findings with the fact that half of all school leavers now go on to university and it should come as no surprise that mental health issues are prevalent among student populations.


Not all universities offer the same level of support

Prospective students tend to be guided by league tables, websites and marketing materials when considering which universities to apply for.

However league tables do not take into account the level of mental health support available at each university, and marketing materials rarely prominently showcase the availability of mental health supports at the research or application stage (or even after). This lack of publicised and actively communicated information by universities does not encourage applicants to factor in the availability of help and support when making their decision, and instead leaves them to carry out their own research.

Testament to this, the story of student Elliot Bush featured in The Guardian last year particularly stands out:

When Elliot left home in Essex to study German and Russian at a Russell Group university, things went downhill. “I was unprepared for uni. Living away from home, everything being new, I didn’t have the proper support in place. I wasn’t sleeping, I found it hard to make friends, I stopped taking my medication because I felt like it wasn’t working well. Five weeks into my first term, I ended up having a breakdown.”

Elliot took a year out to get well, and then re-applied to university via Ucas, taking a different approach. “I wanted to start again, somewhere new. This time I made sure I was prepared. I went to wellbeing service stands at open days and online; I sought out reviews of how each university handled mental health. I asked how tutors responded, how organised the wellbeing service was, and about the quality of the local GP or campus medical service.”


Care > Customer

Elliot’s story certainly resonated with us and should resonate with the marketing and communications departments across all UK universities. Yes, it’s important to consider the customer journey of a student to make sure you are communicating with them at the right moments and across the right channels, but equally, it is important that we don’t forget about the enormity of this ‘purchase’ decision.

Applying to, starting and attending university is a highly-charged, emotional and stressful time for each individual and so communicating the levels of support available should be as important as communicating information about accommodation and courses. Instead of treating students purely as traditional customers and focussing on publicising traditional, consumer-driven USPs, consider shaking things up and delivering marketing campaigns that focus on student mental health and wellbeing right through from application, to graduation and beyond.


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