Research Approach and Objectives

Research Approach and Objectives


Universities are under considerable pressure to improve student mental health. However, with a lack of baseline data to understand the current state of student mental health, decision-making is happening in the dark. Further, while a number of Russell Group universities have publicised important new initiatives for promoting positive mental health and wellbeing, there is no clear evidence of how these initiatives will consider the different social characteristics of students.

Our project draws on two main conceptual frameworks: intersectionality theory and life course theories. Life course theories are concerned with how issues in early life (such as mental health and wellbeing) affect outcomes in later life (Elder, 1998). An intersectional approach offers the opportunity to dramatically improve the efficacy of interventions and policy strategy to reduce life outcome inequality of young people that may be in jeopardy. We intend to take an intersectional approach to determine the life outcomes of young people entering university. Unlike other studies which mainly focus on educational and employment outcomes, this research project intends to also look at adult mental health and wellbeing outcomes to inform university mental health strategy. In terms of intersectionality, the main social identities of gender, SES and ethnicity will be used to determine how these act together to influence life outcomes. As adolescent mental health and wellbeing can predict adult mental health and wellbeing (Clark et al., 2018), we will also consider how mental health and wellbeing during adolescence affects life outcomes taking into account different social characteristics. Through an intersectional approach, we can also consider how going to different universities, as well as studying different disciplines, can affect the educational, employment and mental health and wellbeing outcomes for young people with different social characteristics. We take the stance that universities are not homogeneous entities. Therefore, we hypothesise that differences in how universities prioritise teaching, academic support and research quality may create different life outcomes for young people; that is, universities may moderate young people’s life outcomes.

Secondary Data Analysis Approach

Our research project employs a secondary data analysis approach making use of data sets from the Next Steps Study (formerly the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England [LSYPE]). The Next Steps data sets are part of a nationally representative longitudinal cohort study that was conducted between 2004 and 2010, then again in 2015/2016; it followed 15,770 English pupils from the age of 13/14 years for 7 years (Waves 1 to 7) until they were 19/20 years old, collecting data on factors including their attitudes, education, SES, and mental health and wellbeing. In 2015/2016, the same individuals were followed up with a new survey (Wave 8, 25 years old), which looked at their education and employment, as well as their current attitudes and mental health and wellbeing.

There should be sufficient data in Next Steps to allow for the investigation of the different intersectionalities (Anders, 2012). As we are analysing a large-scale and nationally representative sample of young adults, our analyses should have the advantage of allowing us to understand the current life outcomes of students after higher education and hence, the findings are relevant when forming and evaluating contemporary policies related to young people.

As there is a lack of evidence on how the university environment (such as the size, amount of academic support available, availability of sports activities, etc.) can affect students’ mental health and wellbeing and their life outcomes, we will supplement the Next Steps data with university environment data from the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA).

Specific Objectives

This research project uses an intersectional approach to investigate the extent to which the life outcomes of young persons who go to university are affected by their social inequality groupings and mental health and well-being during adolescence. Additionally, this project also aims to determine the characteristics of university environments that can improve the life outcomes of these young people depending on their social and mental health/wellbeing background.

After consultation with What Works Wellbeing and the Student Mental Health and Research Network (SMaRteN), and an examination of the available data, our specific objectives of this research project are to:

  1. Determine whether young people who enter higher education differ in their mental health and wellbeing to those who do not enter higher education.
  2. Make recommendations for interventions that can enhance the university environment by determining which characteristics of the university environment improve the educational, employment and mental health outcomes for young people.
  3. Determine how the intersections of adolescents’ social characteristics (e.g. gender, socioeconomic status), and their mental health and wellbeing, affect their future life outcomes (education and employment, as well as adult mental health and wellbeing).
  4. Create linkages between Next Steps responses and administrative data (such as the NSS and the institutional data held by HESA).

Research Questions

  1. How does the mental health and wellbeing of adolescents affect their adult life outcomes (educational, employment, and mental health and wellbeing)?
    • Does mental health and wellbeing interact with other social inequality characteristics to influence whether or not a young person enters higher education?
    • Does mental health and wellbeing interact with other social inequality characteristics to influence whether or not young people who entered higher education have better employment outcomes?
    • Is the mental health and wellbeing of young people in higher education, or leaving higher education, different from those who never entered higher education?
    • Do these life outcomes differ by discipline?
  1. What type of university environment works for having better life outcomes (particularly mental health and wellbeing) for students with different social characteristics?
    • Do universities that have higher perceived levels of academic and personal support and sense of belongingness lead to better life outcomes for students?
    • Do universities that have higher financial investment in, and access to, sports facilities and support personnel lead to better life outcomes for students?
    • Do the above life outcomes differ depending on students’ social characteristics and discipline?