University well-being: a hard SEL?
16th February 2023
Is it ever too late to work on our Social Emotional Learning?
In January, the BBC reported on research that links students’ mental health and drug or alcohol use to their chosen subject. As a former psychology undergraduate, I know that people sometimes comment on how choosing to study psychology is often motivated by students’ own experiences of mental health problems. The study, produced by Ulster University and the Atlantic Technical University, provides evidence to support this idea. More widely, conversations on the UK’s mental health crisis and overwhelmed mental health systems are rife, including our own research into SEL interventions in England, indicating the impact of inequality and disadvantage on university students’ mental health.
The study into pupils’ subject choice finds that among 1,829 undergraduate students:
- Those enrolled in psychology courses had higher rates of panic disorder and social anxiety than others;
- Business students had higher rates of drug abuse, and,
- Law students had higher rates of alcohol misuse.
The researchers (McLaferty et al., 2022) link their findings to both stressors related to the courses and early life experiences, stating that students interested in the “humanities, social work or counselling, were more likely to report childhood adversities”. Conversely, students enrolled in life, and health sciences courses like medicine, physiotherapy or biomedical sciences had the lowest rates of mental health and substance problems overall.
In light of the findings, the researchers call for universities to take a tailored preventative approach to support young people. However, in light of this and similar conclusions we have drawn from our work, particularly our TASO mental health report, I don’t believe the answer lies simply in offering mental health support to psychology students and guidance on drug and alcohol misuse to law and business students . We are already in crisis, and these systems are already overwhelmed.
If we assume that course choice is led partially by aptitudes and competency in various skills, in addition to external considerations, these groups of students already possess skills that make them more suited to their courses. From the SEL perspective, we should look at how we reinforce the skills that benefit their academic endeavours and pay attention to those skills that need further development to help reduce risks to students’ health and well-being.
Social Emotional Skills
Last year I worked on CfEY’s state-of-the-nation report on Social Emotional Learning (SEL), published in December. The BBC article made me wonder about the relationship between degree choice and the skills or qualities that make pupils more inclined to choose one degree over another. How can we use SEL in higher education to bolster young people’s chances of reaching their best possible outcomes? Developing SEL skills beyond 18 must be part of the institutional response to the deteriorating mental health among university students.
The different skills people use in everyday social interactions are spread over a spectrum of Social Emotional Skills (SES), categorised under self-, and other-oriented skills . In our report, we discuss the evidence of the benefits of SEL on students’ development, academic performance, attitudes, social skills, and mental health, as well as the role of inequality and the attainment gap . However, the current narrative surrounding SEL is centred on its implementation within primary and secondary schools.
Waiting for the knock-on effects of embedding more robust SEL practices in schools for future generations of university students seems irresponsible. Can we find ways of tackling young people’s needs at the tail end of their education before they enter the graduate labour market?
Professors Kathleen Chim and Benjamin Chan from Hong Kong Metropolitan University believe we can. Their Mind Matters article proposes four distinct opportunities universities should take to further develop young people’s SES . These are:
- Ensuring all students have access to work-integrated learning
- Providing citizenship and community-building opportunities,
- Offering introductory courses in psychology, and
- Promoting personal development through reflection and mental health workshops.
Through these four avenues, students can access opportunities to develop their relationships with others and their communities, understand themselves and the processes underlying SEL, and grow in their self-awareness and self-management. In the process, they acquire, develop and have a chance to excel in transferrable skills that naturally develop through working with others. Building these opportunities into courses also seems like a way to ensure university degrees prepare young people for the demands of their future careers. In this way, the approach to SEL in higher education would not happen as an add-on during times of struggle but rather as an essential dimension to self-development prior to entering the labour market.
Returning to the study on subject choice, it could be possible that psychology students have a higher awareness of mental health issues, emotions and social interactions. In the case of students in the life sciences, stronger problem-solving skills, motivation and endurance may make these courses seem more appealing to them. In theory, we can take advantage of these skills when thinking of developing SEL approaches and improving students’ ability to manage their mental health.
Perhaps opportunities for psychology students to build on their existing SES could support them in developing their ability to recognise others’ needs. Their degree should include opportunities for reinforcing their self-awareness and self-management and implementing healthy boundaries in preparation for their professional careers. Similarly, with business or law students, courses prioritising socialisation skills could help them to improve their responsible decision-making and develop healthy ways to network and build relationships.
Building a fair society
Social emotional skills development is a fundamental building block underpinning learning and relationships, according to Bethia McNeil, Chief Executive at YMCA George Williams College and the Centre for Youth Impact . She references Pearson’s 2022 School Report identifying resilience, kindness and strong self-esteem as crucial requirements to thrive in modern society and employment.
I agree; developing SES through education has an equalising effect. Approaches that embed SEL foster growth and an ability to recognise, understand and explore others’ experiences and emotions whilst reflecting, managing and developing one’s own. As English universities prepare to adapt their programmes to the fast-evolving demands of a technological and global labour market, institutions should focus on the following:
- offering high-quality SEL provision,
- implementing opportunities for developing SES within the curriculum, and,
- identifying which students may arrive with the lowest levels of social emotional competencies and therefore benefit the most.
The continued development of these varied skills and how we build our relationships can bring positive effects. There is potential for students to develop greater empathy for others and build stronger skills for resilience and tenacity. University and higher education should be perceived as educational periods where SEL and SES are still under development and an area in which students must be supported for growth.
 See: https://cfey.org/reports/2022/05/what-works-to-tackle-mental-health-inequalities-in-higher-education/
 The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) categorises them under skills for self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.
 See: https://cfey.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Catalysing-SEL-Report.pdf
 See: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/mind-matters-embedding-socioemotional-learning-higher-education-curricula
 See: https://feweek.co.uk/socio-emotional-skills-are-a-priority-to-build-a-fairer-society/