'I'm sorry if any student feels let down': An interview with Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady

Following the tragic deaths of three of our students in recent weeks, incoming co-Editor in Chief Ed Southgate talks to Professor Hugh Brady about his personal response to the news, as well as what the University is doing to ensure students are supported.

Our University community has faced a tough few weeks lately, on top of a tough couple of years, as the number of students taking their lives is increasing at distressing levels. Whilst we should not forget that this is a growing problem within the Higher Education sector both nationally and indeed globally, each individual university has their own responsibility and duty to their students to support them through the struggles that our generation is facing. The opportunity to interview the University of Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady, thus gave me an opportunity to put some of the concerns voiced by the student body to him, as well as giving him the opportunity to explain what the University is doing to help the growing issue.

Many within our University community often feel, it seems, disconnected from the Vice-Chancellor; he is somewhat of an enigmatic figure and has cultivated somewhat of a celebrity status on campus which, I must admit, made me a little anxious. Because of this, before I began speaking about wellbeing policy, I wanted to see a little bit of Hugh Brady as an individual – not Professor Hugh Brady, not Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady, but the Hugh Brady who is human and perhaps just as vulnerable to mental health difficulties as anyone else. When I therefore asked him how Hugh Brady responded to the tragic news, he said: ‘personally it is very difficult. Any student death is a tragedy that we all feel; as a father of three students, I certainly feel it. If we divorce the tragedies from being a Vice-Chancellor, it is really concerning and disturbing, sad, tragic – all of those combined. I can really sense that feeling also amongst our students and staff.’

'As Vice-Chancellor', he added, 'you always use each individual event to evaluate what we have done and what we are doing’.

As a father of three students, I certainly feel it. If we divorce the tragedies from being a Vice-Chancellor, it is really concerning and disturbing, sad, tragic – all of those combined. I can really sense that feeling also amongst our students and staff.

The Vice-Chancellor and University has recently come under fire from a student body, angry and upset about the increasing student deaths, for giving unemotional responses that lack compassion. I felt it important to explore this, to see how much he understands and can empathise with our situation; unaware to me and I am sure to my peers, he has known ‘many’ people personally who have faced and been affected by mental health difficulties. Two students who were in his medical class when he was an undergraduate took their lives soon after graduation, with another individual he knew having made ‘a very serious attempt’. Whilst having experienced this, he added: ‘[suicide] is just the extreme. I am very aware of increasing mental health difficulties.’

To the students who may feel they have been let down by the support services, Professor Brady says: ‘I’m sorry’. He adds: ‘We are only going to solve this together’, as he discusses how we all view student life through different lenses so ‘feedback from students on what has and hasn’t worked is really valuable.’

Indeed, with increasing mental health difficulties at every level, it is important to understand what we have done and what we could do more, which has much to do with understanding the causation of the issues that lead to such tragic circumstances. As a research university, Professor Brady wants to assess what we can do to better understand the problem because ‘if we understand it better, we can better understand causation and get closer to early intervention’.

Whilst the precise causes are still unclear due to insufficient research, Professor Brady believes there are numerous potential factors, including the increased academic pressure on our generation, the national debate over fees and financial pressures, our age being of geopolitical uncertainty with concerns over Trump, North Korea, the Middle East and Climate Change to name a few.

Professor Brady is often heard speaking about the dangers of social media. Whilst recognising that there is only ‘some evidence’ and that ‘we certainly need to study its impact and get some hard evidence’, he said: ‘I am really struck when I look at students how their phone is almost glued to the palm of their hand’. To our Vice-Chancellor, social media is a concern in how it can be seen to create an ‘illusion of this perfect happy world’ where no one is allowed to have a bad day because we only upload our happiest of moments, meaning if one does have a bad day we are made to feel like the exception.

With such an array of potential causes, the crucial question is perhaps what could have been done and what needs to be done to ensure this does not happen again. The Vice-Chancellor wants ‘to ensure we have the right support in place for those immediately affected’, but poses the even more important question of ‘how do we get ahead’ of the problem?

To this end, he returns to his view of the significance of a ‘whole-institution approach’. This refers partly to the controversial hall reforms, which will see the removal of Wardens and Deputy Wardens in place of residential villages which the Vice-Chancellor says will ensure 24/7 support 365 days a year. He says that, whereas Wardens and Deputy Wardens would have a day job also preventing them from being in Halls during the day – which can be a telling time if a student is struggling if they are not going to classes but are hanging around in their residence – the sole job of the new staff will be ‘to provide support for students’.

He added: ‘I don’t think we can stand by a system where there isn’t 24/7 support by people specifically trained on these issues’. The new model will also see the implementation of support staff in each school; importantly, these will not be replacing the role of our personal academic tutors, but will be ‘supplementing the support’ that they provide. The Vice-Chancellor also said that there will be ‘increased capacity in terms of counselling and the GP service’, and his aim if for there to be more ‘clarity in terms of care pathways’. By this, he means to make clear specifically what academic tutors should and should not be providing in terms of pastoral support.

The Vice-Chancellor also seemed keen to emphasise that this ‘does appear to be a national and an international issue’. Asked whether that means the University should not take some responsibility for the tragic loss of our students in the past two years, he was quick to say ‘no’ and stressed that it ‘is really important that we do not use [it being a national and international issue] as an excuse. This does appear to be the challenge of our time, but let us lead the change’.

On the issue of what the University can do moving forward, it would be wrong not to raise the £1million extra investment each year into wellbeing services, especially when many students have expressed concern over this figure when placed next to the £300m being invested into the new Temple Meads Quarters campus. He said that it is his ‘ambition’ that this investment, on top of what else is being done with regards to wellbeing support, will be enough to ensure that any student who needs help can get the appropriate care, and hope ‘that students are equally ambitious about the service we provide’. Adding that ‘you can never guarantee’ this, he did say that ‘the investments that we’re making and the additional investments we will make if necessary, gives us the potential to really enhance the service and to be seen as nation-leading’.

Here, it is important to stress that, whilst the £1million figure has been heralded a lot in press statements, this refers only to the Wellbeing advisors that are being put in place into schools. Will Marsh, Head of Media at the University of Bristol, expressed a concern that this figure ‘has become shorthand for all that the University is doing’. It was emphasised that the Pastoral Review is now costing more by £3m, that the University of Bristol is one of only two universities in the UK that has its own GP service, and the Vice-Chancellor expressed an interest in providing a ‘much more welcoming heart to campus’ focusing on ‘social, informal spaces as well as study spaces’ to create a community feel.

The investments that we’re making, and the additional investments we will make if necessary, gives us the potential to really enhance the service and to be seen as nation-leading

This is not the only misconception surrounding the £1million figure, the Vice-Chancellor expressed. The £300million campus and the £1million investment into Wellbeing advisors are ‘two different lines of funding’; because the Government no longer provides capital funding for universities, the Vice-Chancellor used the analogy that the money for the new campus is much like a mortgage that is borrowed and would not be used for day-to-day spending. The everyday spending of the University, he says, has ‘very much emphasised and prioritised spending on people’.

This brings us to the call for preventative action. Professor Brady says that all referrals to the wellbeing service are reviewed within 24 hours, and there is a risk-based assessment where those deemed high-risk will be seen the same or next day. I mention to him that many students are concerned that this leads to a reactive rather than preventative approach, in that only those who are critically ill will be seen urgently; for our Vice-Chancellor, the essence behind his ‘whole-institution approach’ is to be preventative. With Wellbeing advisors in schools not to replace but to supplement our academic tutors, and the Residential Villages providing 24/7/365 care, he hopes that we will get ahead in identifying the early signs of mental health difficulties.

To end, asked about what he would say to students who may be struggling now, the Vice-Chancellor makes clear that ‘it is a sign of strength and not of weakness to talk', either to a close friend or someone at the University.

Most people who are thinking of taking their own life have shown warning signs beforehand.
These can include becoming depressed, showing sudden changes in behaviour, talking about wanting to die and feelings of hopelessness.  These feelings do improve and can be treated.

If you are concerned about someone, or need help yourself, please contact the Samaritans on 116 123.

Other student support services include:
Young Minds https://youngminds.org.uk/ 0808 802 5544
Nightline https://www.nightline.ac.uk/want-to-talk/
Papyrus https://www.papyrus-uk.org/ 0800 068 41 41
Student Minds http://www.studentminds.org.uk/findsupport.html

(Featured Image: Epigram / Ed Southgate)

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