Surveillance for mental health conditions in Higher Education

Firstly and correctly mental health is a big issue and something I care deeply about, having seen mental health issues rising in Universities year on year, having friends that suffer with mental health issues and occasionally doubting my own mental health with work and family pressures, not to mention when that imposter syndrome kicks in, we have to get better at supporting and helping to tackle mental health. As one of the two undergraduate Senior Personal Academic tutors at Winchester School of Art I am also exposed to a lot more of these issues, so I know we need action. However the surveillance of students is not the way to solve this issue. As many reading this blog you will know one of my long term concerns has been the potential infectious nature that Silicon Valleys Big data model could have on education. So I am opposed to the project just announced by Northumbria University.

A £2m project supported by the OfS will use innovative integration of technology, advanced educational data analytics, student relationship management and student support to provide an understanding of the opportunities to predict whether a student is already experiencing or will have a mental health crisis. (2019)

This project is backed by the OfS, the OfS are an independent public body they are not part of central Government, but they have to report to Parliament through the Department for Education (DfE).

We want every student to have a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers. (2019)

They have a nice diagram of how they plan to achieve this goal. Concerning for me is the foundation stone appears to be “value for money”. I do not see much detail on how the OfS define value for money but in much of the press there has been too much emphasis on return on investment and the pure utilitarian view of higher education. Measuring your degree against your future incoming is a very simplistic and poor metric.

In this mental health technology project the main technology partner is Civitas Learning International. They do seem to sell products but you have to question their business model, following round after round of Venture Capital funding I cannot but suspect these backers will want to ensure the technology pays them back. Civitas are a for profit company after all.

Here is a quick list of their Funding announcements over the last few years;

In the middle of this funding they ‘had to’ lay off 10% of staff as well, note the reason.

last week that the layoffs were part of a “strategic shift” that “forced Civitas to let go of some talent and post new jobs for positions better suited for the company’s future” in personalized pathways and predictive analytics offerings.(2017)

Predictive analytics. Zuboff shows us clearly in The Age of Surveillance (2019) that prediction is the key piece to manipulate and modify human behaviour for capitalist gains.

Civitas again laid off more staff at the start of this year (2019) and again this was shortly after more funding (EdSurge) Plus there is certainly a lot of negative reviews on Glassdoor.

I do not see any good actors in this project at this stage.

Could this £2million have been spent differently to support mental health within Universities I have a strong sense it could have been. I’ll watch this project with concerned Interest.

Adam Procter @adamprocter