‘Healthy Universities’ in Wales: Challenges and opportunities


Seminar speakers. L-R: Sue Bowker, Dr. Mark Dooris, Dr. Graham Moore, Dr. Simon Murphy, Chris Roberts.

By Rachel Brown

Last week I attended the 20th in the Health Challenge Wales seminar series, which is run by DECIPHer and PHIRN in partnership with the Welsh Government. The Health Challenge Wales series aims to share knowledge and promote dialogue between policy makers, academics and practitioners, and those attending the latest seminar included representatives from the Welsh Government, public health practice, the voluntary sector, education and much more. The topic for discussion was ‘Developing a Healthy Universities network in Wales: Challenges and opportunities’. The close links between government, organisations and the relatively small Higher Education (HE) sector in Wales provide a foundation for genuine communication and collaborative working, and I sensed real optimism in the room regarding what we might achieve.

Why ‘Healthy Universities’?

An interesting question raised quite early on in the day was “why universities?”. Why should health promotion target a sector traditionally associated with elite access by an already privileged sub-group of young people?

I think there are two answers to this.

First, the profile of HE in the UK has changed dramatically over the past 15 years or so, with those attending university coming from an increasingly diverse range of backgrounds. The ‘widening access’ agenda in education in Wales (similar to the UK-wide ‘widening participation’) aims to ensure the continuation of this trend through initiatives including ‘Reaching Wider’, which aims to tackle under-representation in HE in groups such as people with disabilities. At last week’s seminar, we heard from Cardiff University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Elizabeth Treasure, that this appears to be having an effect: an increasing numbers of university students have a declared disability. A more diverse and complex student body in HE means those writing policy and delivering services need an enhanced understanding of the specific needs of the young people using these services, and programmes such as ‘Healthy Universities’ can be part of this.

My second answer is that, simply, many university students will go on to become policy makers. ‘Healthy Universities’ is an opportunity to introduce the concept of a settings-based approach to health promotion to a wide audience at this stage in their education.

Oxford University’s Bodlean Library. Are universities a valuable site for health promotion or are we targeting an already privileged group?

Why collaborate?

During the day, a range of speakers discussed some of the key challenges we face in establishing a ‘Healthy Universities’ network in Wales. In the panel discussion that ended the day, some key common concerns emerged, including:

  • Sustainability;
  • Funding;
  • Evaluation;
  • How to make the programme work across the diverse HE landscape.

All of these concerns highlight the importance of collaboration between practice, academia and policy.

Evaluation of the impact of ecological approaches to health is complex, with effects potentially taking many years to manifest. However, this does not make such evaluation any less vital. Importantly, this complexity makes it all the more necessary for academics to engage with the development of a ‘Healthy Universities’ network, as they can provide key knowledge and support on how best to evaluate the project.

And the available knowledge base is by no means limited to academia. There’s a great deal we can learn from existing work in the field of health-promoting educational settings, including the highly successful Welsh Network of Healthy Schools Scheme. We are also fortunate to have an established partner network in England, led by the University of Central Lancashire’s Dr. Mark Dooris, who spoke at the seminar of being impressed by the strong government-level commitment to health promotion already evident in Wales. 

Where do we go from here?

The involvement of practitioners, too, is central to developing an effective ‘Healthy Universities’ network. I’ve been lucky enough to work on various student wellbeing projects within HE in Wales and have encountered huge amounts of knowledge and commitment from both senior management and front line staff. It may be helpful to start by tapping into and circulating this local knowledge, as well as recognising and drawing on examples of good work already out there. More forums for practitioners, academics and policy makers to share this knowledge and practice can only benefit the development of a consistent, evidence-led approach.

We have a great opportunity to embed health promotion in educational practice in Wales and I look forward to becoming more involved as part of the project task group. Embedding health considerations within settings where people live, work and play (and university is all three at once) is about improving quality of life, enhancing inclusion and promoting opportunity – and isn’t that what education is all about?

Rachel Brown (@Brownr14Rachel) is a DECIPHer PhD student based at Cardiff University, researching the role of alcohol in the formation of peer group networks in new university students.

For more information about the Health Challenge Wales seminars, see the DECIPHer website.

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