I was in Birmingham today. This was very exciting! It involved an overnight stay in a hotel, two train journeys, all on my own without smaller family members, a dinner out and then an all day conference. It reminded me how things were prepandemic, at this time of year I might be on a longer train at least once a week. And then that seemed normal. I should acknowledge though that I was a bit apprehensive. I have stayed away since the pandemic but not done this kind of work trip – how would I get from the hotel to the venue? (Uber to the rescue), had I packed everything? (no, forgot my toothbrush), would I get lost in Birmingham? (no!) etc etc. I did realise that this was part of transitioning back out of lockdown and I felt very fortunate to be able to go. It was lovely to see people, and meet people, that I had only seen online in the person. As well as to get some headspace on the train journeys – I have always loved train journeys for thinking and productive working, sometimes before the pandemic I wanted to just book a journey somewhere so I could catch up!
The reason I was in Birmingham was for an AdvanceHE DVC/PVC networking event. Debbie McVitty from WonkHE spoke at the dinner about how now was the time for universities to really embrace publically the debate on learning and teaching, and how education is changing – can’t disagree with that! Then there were three main presentation sessions: reimaging the student experience post pandemic; leading on student (and staff) mental health and the challenge of maintaining a broad-based curriculum in a marketised environment. All the sessions were really useful with some great and thought provoking speakers. The one that I found most inspiring was the one on mental health. Steve West spoke first about the importance of compassionate and values-driven leadership, including sharing his own wellbeing challenges during lockdown which reduced me to tears. The point was made that for students, their mental health is likely to be worse if they are at university than if they are not. Then Gareth Hughes gave an impassioned presentation on the connection between wellbeing and learning which I loved – this is something I have been thinking about for years and it made me think about what we can do at City with the work we want to do around education and the student experience. How can we put wellbeing at the heart of this? Gareth argued that if you view everything through the lens of mental health so many other things fall into place. I also really enjoyed Nkasi Stoll’s presentation of her phd research on black students and mental health, and the work of the organisation she has co-founded, Black People Talk. Her presentation of the experiences of black students in universities was sobering and depressing. Although I took hope from the work she is doing and thinking about how we can engage with this more fully. Lastly Rosie Tressler from Student Minds outlined work they had done on student mental health during the pandemic and the work of the mental health charter.
I found this session the most compelling, I think, because of the urgency needed here for us to act. If we can work to create healthy universities, I believe we will be better equipped to address the other challenges around the student experience and retaining our broader curriculum. Promoting positive wellbeing through our own actions, showing compassion and care for others, encouraging an environment where people can freely talk about their mental health and mental illness, embedding this in everything we do to ensure our staff and students can work, and learn and engage with each other in positive ways – these all seem like fundamentals of a university community. Why would we not want to do these? And whilst I believe that these are the responsibility of everybody in our university communities, I also believe that modelling these as a leader is vital. I am even more conscious of this now having moved into my current role. If I do not demonstrate these values, then I’m not sending a message that I value these in others. We reflected on my table that the basis of this was trust. As leaders we need to build trust by being honest about our own wellbeing and mental health, and then listening to others. This is something that after day I am even more committed to than ever.
It was also remembrance day. Seems even more appropriate to reflect on our wellbeing and how to support others at this time.