Thriving Learners

Thriving Learners is one of the largest and most significant studies of student mental health that has ever taken place in the UK.

Over the two years of this project, we engaged with more than 17,000 college and university students and staff across Scotland. We are grateful to all of them for sharing their experiences of mental health and well-being to help us make recommendations for sector-wide improvements.

Thanks also to our partners Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland for supporting this study.

Thriving Learners was made possible thanks to funding from The Robertson Trust.

Year two: Colleges

We partnered with Colleges Scotland, which linked us with every Scottish college to conduct the research.

The study consisted of two strands:

  1. Student-facing survey which was completed by more than 2000 students studying at a Scottish college between March 2022 and May 2022
  2. Qualitative interviews with 18 professional stakeholders working within the college sector

For an overview, read our Executive Summary

The Report

Findings and Recommendations

The study found that:

  • 64% of college students in Scotland had low mental well-being
  • Among the college students who said they had low well-being, three-quarters said they experienced food insecurity or had a long-term health condition, and half had a disability
  • 37% experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months while 31% of students worried about running out of food; 30% ate less due to a lack of resources or money; and 17% lived in households that had run out of food
  • 54% reported having moderate, moderately severe, or severe symptoms of depression. Among students who have experienced food insecurity, 25% had severe symptoms of depression
  • 55% of students said they had concealed a mental health problem due to fear of stigma

The recommendations in our report include:

  • The Scottish Government should provide increased investment and sustained funding for mental health and well-being support in colleges. This should include well-being interventions that benefit general health
  • Colleges and key funding agencies, including the Scottish Government, need to work together to implement a post-pandemic recovery plan that recognises and addresses the effects of the pandemic on student learning and social confidence
  • College student support services should strengthen their communication and engagement with students to help increase awareness among students of mental health and well-being support. This should focus specifically on communication and engagement with students with vulnerabilities and that those who work with them to make sure there is more consistent and clear information for these students before they start college and across their journey

Read the full report

Appendix A Appendix B Appendix C

Year One: Universities

We partnered with Universities Scotland, who linked us with every Scottish university to conduct the research.

The findings of the first year of the study, which focuses on universities, illustrate the challenges and inequalities faced by students across Scotland and our recommendations for improvement.

For an overview, read our Executive Summary

The report


  • Prof Pamela Gillies (Universities Scotland/Glasgow Caledonian University)
  • John de Pury (Universities UK)
  • Olivia Ford (Student at the University of Strathclyde)
  • Luke Humberstone (UWS Union)

Findings & Recommendations

The study found that:

  • Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported low well-being (74%)
  • More than one-third (36%) of respondents reported either moderately severe or severe symptoms of depression
  • Almost half of the respondents (45%) reported experiencing a serious psychological issue that they felt needed professional help
  • More than half of respondents (57%) reported concealing a mental health problem for fear of stigmatisation
  • In the past 12 months, over a fifth of respondents (22%) worried about running out of food
  • In the past 12 months, almost one quarter (24%) ate less due to a lack of resources or money

Recommendations include:

  • Increased focus on and funding for wellbeing supports. The Scottish Government should increase funding that should not be ring-fenced for mental health counselling only but includes the ability to increase capacity and interventions for wider well-being support. Additionally, there needs to be:
    • Consistency of language used across all universities to describe different forms of support and help students and staff understand and navigate wider student support systems
    • Simplified pathways to support students and a campaign to raise awareness of what’s available and how to get benefits
    • Innovative solutions to increase staff skills, knowledge and confidence to cope with student well-being needs
  • Universities should incorporate student well-being as a measure of success as part of their enhancement model
  • Universities should undertake further research and consultation to gain a fuller understanding of the impact of trauma (e.g. ACES, bullying, food insecurity) on student mental health and well-being and implement a trauma-informed approach to support across the whole university sector
  • Further discussion among decision-makers at the Scottish Government, universities, and poverty charities on how to tackle student poverty and food insecurity
  • The NHS and University sector agree on the parameters of the duty of care of universities. This should include a clear referral path for students who need more intensive mental health support than what can be provided by a university. This should be implemented across all institutions and NHS boards in Scotland

To read the full list of recommendations, see page 144 of the full report.

Read the full report

What’s next?

We are encouraged by the positive response to the first-year findings of Thriving Learners. The evidence and recommendations from the study provide a clear path forward. Universities across Scotland and Universities Scotland have expressed a commitment to respond in a meaningful way and continue to enhance understanding of student mental health and well-being and the support available to enable every student to thrive.

We aim to repeat the Thriving Learners research in the coming years to understand the impact of changes and to help inform and review progress.

For more information, please contact Chris Maguire (Senior Research Officer) at [email protected] .

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