The experiences of female students at Cambridge will be put under the spotlight in a major new research project responding to the unprecedented mental health crisis facing young women at UK universities.
The project, based at Murray Edwards College, one of only two all-female higher education institutions in Britain, has been made possible thanks to a generous £150,000 donation from philanthropists Christina and Peter Dawson.
The funding will support a two-year research position at the College to conduct an in-depth examination of young women’s experiences of teaching and learning at Cambridge, exploring how those experiences link to students’ wellbeing. The research will seek to set student perspectives in context, taking into account race, social class, sexual orientation and disability status.
The project will review existing research and gather views from specially commissioned student interviews and focus groups, in addition to wider surveys examining student mental health and wellbeing across the university.
The findings will be published as a major report to inform changes in support programmes for women students at Cambridge and other UK universities. At Murray Edwards, the research will contribute to the College’s own wellbeing and support programmes and will influence teaching and learning practices and widening participation projects.
The results of the study will be published in academic journals and will also be disseminated via a Cambridge University-wide symposium and a national conference for leading figures in the provision of UK university wellbeing services, representatives of student bodies, politicians, policymakers and more.
The project comes amid a mental health crisis affecting UK students and young women in particular. Almost a third of students say they are worried about their mental health – a significantly higher proportion than non-students – and the problem is most marked among young women. Schoolgirls are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety as schoolboys, but by the time they are at university, young women are three times as likely as young men to suffer from a lack of confidence in their mental health. At Cambridge, 60% of students report feeling ‘extremely stressed’ by their degree: the highest level of any university in the country.
Anecdotally, indications are that these challenges may be even greater for female students in STEM subjects, who are learning and working in departments that remain predominantly male.
Murray Edwards College, founded 70 years ago as New Hall, Cambridge’s third foundation for women, is increasingly a leading voice in identifying the challenges affecting young women. The College is home to the Murray Edwards Policy Centre for the Wellbeing of Young Women and Girls, and regularly runs talks and events exploring health and wellbeing issues.
College President Dorothy Byrne said: ‘Because we are a college for women, we are in a unique position to understand and explore the problems young women face today. We know they are more likely to feel stressed and anxious than young men and we need to understand why that is and what the experiences of women are. There remains an evidence gap and, thanks to the generosity of Christina and Peter Dawson, our new Research Fellowship will bring rigour to this debate and help prompt better support for young women in Cambridge and beyond.’
Christina Dawson said: ‘We were enthusiastic when we heard that Murray Edwards was going to bring its academic diligence to identify the particular factors affecting young women’s wellbeing and mental health in a university environment. Appreciating differences and tailoring support is key to enabling all students to thrive.’
The research project will be overseen by an advisory panel of leading academics including Tamsin Ford, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cambridge and an internationally renowned Child Psychiatric Epidemiologist, and Professor Pasco Fearon, Director of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research.
Professor Ford said: ‘Our national data from several sources has demonstrated that the mental health of young women has been particularly poor over the last decade. This has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and cost of living crisis, and we desperately need to understand why and develop better and more individualised treatment and prevention strategies.’
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