UCU and UNISON, the unions representing mental health support workers at the University of Birmingham, are seriously concerned about changes made to counselling provision at the University last month. After years of underfunding and understaffing the University has elected not to replace counsellors after all but one of the existing post-holders left in March via a voluntary severance scheme. The University is instead engaging an external company, Spectrum Life, to provide counselling to students.
While the University is promoting this as a way of improving services to students, the service has been chronically understaffed for some time now, with the staff leaving via the voluntary severance scheme being merely the latest group of leavers who have not been replaced like-for-like. Post holders who left as long ago as March 2020 were never replaced, despite the clear and urgent need for additional mental health support for students throughout the pandemic. Previous articles about long waiting lists and students left without support when lists are closed at the end of the academic year can often be traced back to a lack of staff.
Counsellors at the University support students who experience complex, difficult and sometimes high-risk mental health distress and conditions. They have acted as both the final point of referral for students who need additional support after seeing other mental health and wellbeing staff, and also as a source of support, clinical supervision, and guidance for other staff. There is now only one part-time counselling member of staff left on the right grade and with the right experience to support the students who need the most care, such as survivors of sexual violence or abuse, students with eating disorders and students with childhood trauma. Many of these students will now be reliant on online or telephone counselling from Spectrum Life, though the University has specifically badged the service as counselling for “mild-moderate issues”.
The University has made it very clear in negotiations that this is not an increase in funding or an additional service. Money previously used to employ in-house, highly experienced counsellors is being used to pilot an untested privatised service. This seems like a completely unacceptable gamble to take with a service which is so vital to students. With the University seeking to improve waiting times, clear the existing waiting list and spend no additional money on the service, it just seems inevitable that quality will diminish.
The unions are calling on the University to commit additional funding for the recruitment of in-house counsellors prior to the start of the 21/22 academic year (which will also be near to the review of Spectrum Life’s initial 6 month contract).
Risks of outsourcing counselling
While this type of change to counselling is without precedent at the University of Birmingham, similar attempts to outsource counselling to private providers have been made at Universities including Hull, Essex and Wolverhampton, leading to drastic declines in the quality of services – such as cuts in the numbers of sessions offered to students. Without proper funding, sufficient staffing and a supportive environment within the structures of the university itself, we are deeply concerned that mental health and other services will continue to fall short of what students really need. This move made by the University of Birmingham managers represents, in effect, an Uberification and fragmentation of what should be adequate and robust, in-house mental health support.
The national professional body for counselling professionals (the BACP) are also critical of counselling being outsourced within universities. Speaking to the Metro newspaper in 2018, they stated that pushing in-house counselling out of universities is ‘perverse and dangerous’ and a ‘huge cause for concern’.
We believe that the move will only lead to increased time and energy needed to be spent by students on trying to figure out how to navigate a confusing and burdensome bureaucratic system. The plans split off a vital service and team of staff from all other integrated provisions of support and accountability within the institution itself. The care, knowledge, and expertise, as well as the consistency that can be offered by staff part of an in-house provision of a properly funded service cannot be met by an external provider that only seeks to make profit off their ‘customers’, with the minimum of resources. We are also concerned that the lack of consistency and the business model of a private provider could easily mean that students would not have the same counsellor for the entire duration of their support period, thus putting students in the situation of having to repeat their often traumatic stories to yet another stranger.
What can you do to support the campaign?
- Write to the Head of Student Affairs who has overseen the process of outsourcing, Jon Elsmore, to stress the importance of recruiting in-house counsellors;
- If you wish to share your experience of the support you’ve had from the University’s counselling service (or send messages of solidarity), please email a paragraph (or more) to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. We will use pseudonyms when we make these statements public;
- If you are involved in mental health campaigns on campus or beyond, your advocacy for sustainable support for students on campus would be really valuable.