Student Mental Health Partnerships Project

UWE Bristol led a partnership across the Higher Education sector to improve care for students in need of mental health support through the development and evaluation of local partnerships between universities, the NHS and Students’ Unions, connected via a National Learning Collaborative.

The project was one of ten projects funded through the Office for Students (OfS) Mental Health Challenge Competition, and led by universities across the country, to find innovative approaches to improving mental health outcomes for students.

Universities UK’s ‘Minding Our Future’ report (2018) found that students experience great variation in mental health care, and suggested that there is an urgent need to better co-ordinate care between universities and local NHS services.

Aims of the project

The Student Mental Health Partnerships project aimed to:

  • improve local care pathways
  • co-produce the design and delivery of care with students and practitioners
  • share best practice
  • evaluate effective models of partnership working.

Throughout all stages of the programme, university and NHS partners worked together with students and student bodies, including the national charity Student Minds, to ensure that student voices could shape the development of care pathways and other recommendations.

"I just don’t think services talk to each other effectively, I’ve been passed from service to service, rehashing my problems each time and I don’t think they understand how distressing that is "

Elliot , London

Elliot London

Regional partnerships

The project created and tested four approaches to collaboration between universities and NHS across the five regional hubs, with different levels of integration and connection.

Integrated regional student mental health service (Greater Manchester)

The pilot Greater Manchester Universities Student Mental Health Service was launched in September 2019, offering a single designated mental health care pathway for students across the region, with access routes through existing university services. The service enables students with significant difficulties and complex needs to receive specialist interventions as part of a single pathway that extends through university-based services directly into the specialist service.

The project carried out an evaluation, co-produced with student partners, that explored the journeys and experiences of students using the service in order to assess the effectiveness of the service and inform future development.

Greater Manchester case study

Broader clinical pilots: Student Liaison Service (Liverpool)

The Student Liaison Service in Liverpool was designed to pick up issues of students being discharged from secondary NHS services into universities with no named contact and no clear plan, and ensures that the universities know what has happened with students who present in crisis.

The service acts as an interface between NHS and university, taking referrals from A&E, urgent care teams, GPs and university services, offering a brief intervention and signposting or referring to relevant services. A multi-disciplinary team, including NHS, university and student representation oversees progress and ensures practitioners can share best practice and receive the latest information.

Liverpool case study

Targeted clinical pilots: University Research Clinic (North London and Sheffield)

The University Research Clinic model involves academic clinical psychology departments working in partnership with NHS services to improve outcomes for students and reduce pressures on universities.

The service brings together clinical academic staff and NHS-funded trainee clinical psychologists, enabling students to access evidence-based treatment within a university setting, streamlining referrals while providing clinical trainees with a high-quality placement experience. This has created a new care pathway for NHS treatment which is more easily accessible to students.

North London case study

Sheffield case study

Structures for connectivity and collaboration (Bristol)

The Bristol Hub did not create a new service for students but brought together professionals from universities and from NHS primary and secondary mental health services to focus on solving structural and operational issues such as liaison and collaboration between services, referral pathways, and sharing knowledge and research to co-create a better understanding of local students’ needs.

Bristol case study

"I’ve had so many assessments from different care providers and repeated my story several times unnecessarily. It's just exhausting."

Amy, Manchester

Amy Manchester

National Learning Collaborative

Universities UK led a National Learning Collaborative that brought together the Higher Education and health sector bodies – Universities UK, Student Minds, the Mental Health Network and the Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) with local university health sector partnerships. The aim was to:

  • share learning to improve access to care coordination 
  • support the commitment to student mental health in the NHS long-term plan and explore place and population-based approaches
  • embed co-production of service design and delivery with students and practitioners.

SPEQS Toolkit

The Student Services Partnerships Evaluation and Quality Standards (SPEQS) toolkit is a practical toolkit for service managers and practitioners striving to develop partnerships to respond to diverse student mental health needs.

It has been developed from the pathways and outcomes evaluation work led by UCL and the University of Sheffield. It has been co-produced, with student researchers involved in reviewing the themes and developing recommendations. The toolkit covers five domains, with practical advice and guidance, suggested measures, and case studies for each:

  • Developing services with student voice and co-production
  • Collecting and sharing data between services
  • Managing risk across partnerships
  • Measuring student mental health and wellbeing outcomes
  • Developing and evaluating services and partnerships

SPEQS Toolkit (PDF)

Student co-production

The project demonstrated the importance of embedding student voice in partnerships to better align services to student need. Students played an important role across the project in all hubs and through different roles.

  • Peer-led research was a really effective way of involving students. It gave them a space to work together meaningfully and provided a useful approach for understanding the needs of the student population, and for gaining insights that might be missed by traditional research approaches.
  • The peer-to-peer nature of student evaluation projects meant that student service users were more likely to speak openly. Students with a range of protected characteristics and intersectional experiences were able to explore their lived experiences as service users.
  • Peer referral routes, developed in collaboration with Students' Unions, helped to build trust and to ensure students were being effectively signposted and triaged to the right support.
  • Students can play an important role in the co-creation of support and involving them in strategic decision making, design and delivery of services and the evaluation of impact will lead to a richer support system and in particular, a better understanding of the needs of service users from marginalised or under-represented backgrounds.

Learning about partnerships

The project evaluation provided some key findings related to the development of partnerships between Higher Education providers and NHS.

  • Higher Education and Health Care are both complex systems, with many interconnecting parts which undergo constant change, making them difficult to map or fully understand. This is unlikely to change within any reasonable timescale – but the collaboration generated through out project has helped people to understand and to navigate this complexity.
  • Managing risk effectively is critical. There is no common risk management framework across different services, which presents many challenges. Developing a culture of evaluation and research helps to build clarity on outcome measures, and collaboration helps to build trust and understanding of different roles.
  • Context matters. There is no single solution to developing partnerships – providers will need to understand the funding, organisational and political priorities in their regions, and what stage of the journey they are at. For example, we are more able to consider an integrated Student Liaison Service in Bristol now, as a result of the collaboration generated by the project, than we were two years ago.
  • People matter. Professional identities and cultures underpin decision making. The roles of boundary spanners/connectors and enabling leaders who can legitimise network activities are hugely important and need to be recognised. It is important to build trust – networks and practical opportunities can help create shared ways of doing things.

Students are a unique population with particular needs and a unique pattern of support and challenges. It is only through collaboration between higher education providers and the NHS that students will receive the support they need and deserve.

For more information, please contact the EDI Projects team at