Five roles of education leaders who are prioritising student wellbeing

“Beneath the hum of student resurgence, student wellbeing is still a concern, particularly for international students”

Across the globe, education providers are eyeing 2023 with positivity. Borders have mostly opened, lockdowns have mostly ceased (except for China), international students are returning, and there’s a general buzz on campus again as Covid-as-normal life proceeds to create its new shape.

However, beneath the hum of student resurgence, student wellbeing is still a concern, particularly for international students, who are more likely than domestic students to experience anxiety, depression, wellbeing issues, and other mental health concerns. This is concerning for everyone in the sector – from students to academics and executives – given that research has consistently shown a strong association between symptoms of mental distress, academic self-efficacy and study progress.

This being the case, what five roles can education leaders play to prioritise student wellbeing?

1. Embracer

Leaders who prioritise student wellbeing commit to embracing, not delegating, their responsibility for student wellbeing. This means that even with a dedicated Student Services team in place, they “stay personally close to the latest science, data, and information, creating for themselves a human dashboard of sorts and listening for actionable insight. At this time of prolonged crisis, too much is at stake to outsource crucial decisions, or to delegate being informed and aware,” according to Deloitte.

2. Investigator

Education leaders who aim to make a meaningful difference in student wellbeing are investigators who strive to create a culture of evidence-based decisions around student wellbeing rather than believing myths and media hype or defending ‘the way it’s always done’. This is in contrast to only 25% of chief operating officers surveyed from universities across Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom who rated evidence-based decision-making as a current high priority.

3. Challenger

Agents of change for institutional wellbeing are early adopters who search for more innovative, effective, and scalable ways to support their domestic and international students. Their overarching mission, in addition to meeting their regulatory requirements, is to implement the most compelling wellbeing support framework possible. Challengers have “ambitions bigger than [their] conventional resources and [are] prepared to do something bold, usually against the existing conventions or codes of [their] category, to break through,” according to The Challenger Project, published by global strategic consultancy, eatbigfish.

4. Integrator

Leaders who prioritise student wellbeing will:

  • Integrate wellbeing into their decision-making processes;
  • Embed accountability across all parts of their university;
  • Empower the collection of qualitative and quantitative data; and
  • Give their wellbeing teams the profile, training, and budget they need to make a genuine difference for their students.

5. Advocator

Advocates for wellbeing aim to ‘walk the talk’. Within their institution, they assume an influential advocacy role. Externally, they champion the importance of collective wellbeing across the broader community.

Mark Scott AO, Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of Sydney in Australia, exemplifies what it means to be an advocator of student wellbeing. According to Sonder’s Agents of change report, in his first 12 months at the helm, Scott:

  • Tripled his university’s investment in Welcome Week 2022 to provide new students with the best opportunity to make social connections early in their university life;
  • Rewarded staff with a $2,000 “COVID-recognition payment” for their “remarkable and sustained service”#;
  • Personalised his accountability to the NSSS results with a public video address;
  • Continued to prioritise his involvement in the Champions of Change Coalition, whose members have been committed to actively advancing gender equality in their organisations since 2010 when Scott joined as a founding member; and
  • Sparked conversations on his personal Twitter account which champion gender equity, celebrate diversity, promote cultural awareness, and shine a spotlight on the importance of addressing Australia’s youth mental health crisis.

Next steps

To instigate significant change in institutional wellbeing, today’s senior education leaders must step up and become personal agents of social change and true impact players across their ever-expanding ecosystems of influence.

This means embracing their responsibility for wellbeing, separating fact from fiction, challenging the status quo, integrating wellbeing across all of their decision-making, and advocating for wellbeing both inside their institutions and on the broader stage.

# All continuing and fixed-term staff who started their employment with the University on or before 1 September 2021 (as well as casual staff members who had worked three or more pay periods in semester two, 2021).

About the author: Craig Cowdrey, Co-founder & Chief Executive Officer, Craig is passionate about providing global access to on-demand and personalised safety, medical, and mental health support for students and employees. His career spans law, diplomacy, the military, and now healthcare and technology.