A boost to well-being is sought by investing in community, student guidance and educational support
Up to 65% of the University of Oulu students express concerns about their well-being in their studies. This is revealed by the Higher Education Well-being Survey conducted for the OHJY project by Diakonia University of Applied Sciences in spring 2023. The same stark language regarding studens´ well-being is echoed by the nationwide the Finnish Student Health and Wellbeing Survey (KOTT) conducted by the Finnish institute for health and welfare (THL) in the spring of 2021. According to the study, even one-third of Finnish higher education students suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The issue has been recognized at the University of Oulu, and various measures have been initiated to improve student well-being. Well-being has also been highlighted as one of the themes in the Noste development program, through which education at the University of Oulu is systematically developed over the long term.
"We improve well-being by focusing particularly on community and providing high-quality and purposeful guidance at all stages of studies. The well-being of teaching and guidance staff has also been put to the test after the pandemic. When teachers are feeling well, they can support students more effectively. The well-being of the teaching staff is specifically developed by investing in pedagogical support, leadership, and development opportunities for the staff," says Solution Designer Anu Rytivaara, who coordinates the well-being theme of the Noste program.
Student workload has been reflected in student guidance services, where stress, time management issues, and questions related to career choices are the most significant reasons for seeking guidance. Support for studying is provided, for example, through various study groups and sessions with study psychologists. The demand for guidance has been so high that access to appointments with study psychologists has sometimes required waiting.
Kaisa Karhu, Head of Development, who manages guidance services, says that issues related to concentration and various challenges within the autism spectrum have increased. Students also need more individual study arrangements than before. According to Karhu, there are various groups and workshops available to students that simultaneously support their need to interact with others. Efforts are actively made to respond to emerging needs.
"Students have greatly enjoyed the Study Together groups, where they study together using the Pomodoro technique in a structured manner. We have established coaching packages for students grappling with challenges within the autism spectrum and initiated the Stay Active program aimed at international students, combining physical activity, career guidance, and the expertise of psychologists. Additionally, we have launched peer mentoring for students in collaboration with Nyyti ry."
Support will be provided to students throughout their studies – the beginning of studies is crucial for engagement
According to the Well-being Survey of the OHJY project, students generally perceive the atmosphere at the University of Oulu as positive. However, the COVID-19 era and the increase in remote learning have simultaneously heightened feelings of loneliness among students. When students were asked about how well our university supports community and social relationships, the University of Oulu received a score of 5.3 on a scale of 0–10.
"We are investing in preventive work, where a significant focus is on guidance during the early stages of studies. In the initial phase of studies, it is crucial to emphasize face-to-face teaching and grouping. Students feel they receive the most support from fellow students, so it is important to find ways to support team cohesion and a sense of community," says Karhu.
Students desire flexibility and independence in their studies. According to Rytivaara, younger students often seek more presence and contact teaching, while older students value flexibility to better balance family life, work, and studies.
In addition, students hope for guidance and support throughout their studies. Currently, students have been assigned a tutor teacher whom they can turn to at any stage of their studies.
"The Faculty of Science has launched a student counsellor experiment, which will continue until the end of 2024 with additional funding from the Ministry of Education and Culture. We map out what the role of the student counselor could be in the university and how the model could be applied to other faculties in the future as well. In addition, the Faculty of Technology develops super tutor teacher activities, which has been utilized in the Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering for several years. The super tutor teacher has more students to guide than tutor teachers, but also more working time allocated to tutoring,” Rytivaara says.
Of the students who responded to the Well-being Survey of the OHJY project, 80% feel that the University of Oulu is a psychologically safe place in terms of discrimination and harassment. In the 2023 staff well-being survey, the experience of equality and gender equality is at a good level.
"I am, however, concerned that as much as 20 percent of students do not perceive the University of Oulu as a psychologically safe place in terms of discrimination and harassment," says Karhu.
At the University of Oulu, ethical principles, i.e. Code of Conduct, are currently being drawn up to clarify expectations for community members to behave in everyday situations. Solutions to everyday challenges were sought by involving the entire community in co-development from October to November. The working group continues to shape the principles based on the suggestions received.
A well-being and pedagogically skilled staff are also capable to support students
According to the Healthy Finland 2022–2023 survey, only every other working-age Finn perceives their quality of life as good, compared to 60% in 2018. Even one in five Finns experiences significant psychological distress.
This phenomenon can also be seen at the University of Oulu. In 2022, as many as 45 per cent of sick absences among personnel were due to mental health, while before the covid pandemic, the number moved between 3 and 5 per cent and then the main cause of absences was musculoskeletal disorders. Staff well-being is monitored not only through sick leave statistics but also through a well-being survey conducted every two years, actively addressing emerging themes. In the 2023 survey, the University of Oulu continued to rank among the top Finnish universities in the overall index, which is nevertheless at a good level.
"Over the past year, we have been able to improve the well-being of our staff and reduce mental health-related sick leaves by better identifying causes and investing in well-being and work ability management. Absences due to mental health reasons, as well as the number of extended leaves, have decreased significantly. The implemented measures have had an impact," says Tero Vedenjuoksu, HR Development Manager at the University’s Human resources services.
According to Vedenjuoksu, individuals in the early stages of an academic career, particularly those aged 30–39, assess their work ability as the weakest, while those aged 50–59 give the highest ratings to their work ability. People starting their careers typically have more fragmented employment contracts, and in the early stages of their careers, they need more professional support from the community. The university has recognized that different career stages require different leadership and support measures. Line managers play a significant role in managing work ability, and in the Noste program, there is a desire to further clarify their role in management of education and support them through training, for example.
In addition, the university wants to raise the appreciation of teaching and support teachers to develop professionally. To support this effort, a university pedagogical strategy is being developed, along with the necessary action proposals for its implementation.
A working group has also been established to examine the authority and responsibilities of degree programme coordinators and education deans, focusing on how to better support their work.
"At the moment, degree programme coordinators and education deans have responsibilities, but they do not have the mandate to decide, for example, on the use of resources," explains Vedenjuoksu.
Another important way to support the well-being of teaching staff is to provide and manage pedagogical support. Kaisa Karhu mentions that teachers, for example, have found increased demands for individualized study arrangements to be stressful, and both teachers and students can benefit from pedagogical support.
"As a university, we can provide support for teachers to have tools to plan their studies to be accessible in principle, so that there would not be so much need for individual arrangements. By learning together, we can facilitate the work of the staff and provide students with a positive learning experience,” she encourages.