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Conceptualizing the ‘whole university’ approach: an international qualitative study

Dooris, Mark and Powell, Susan and Farrier, Alan (2019) Conceptualizing the ‘whole university’ approach: an international qualitative study. Health Promotion International. pp. 1-11. ISSN 0957-4824

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Focusing on the conceptualization of a whole university approach, this paper reports on an international qualitative study that explored vice-chancellors’ and network members’ understanding of and commitment to Health Promoting Universities, examined perspectives on leadership and investigated the Okanagan Charter’s potential to catalyse whole university leadership and change. A multi-method qualitative approach was used: semi-structured interviews and focus groups were conducted face-to-face with vice-chancellors (n=12) and Health Promoting University co-ordinators who were members of the UK Healthy Universities Network (n=8); telephone interviews were conducted with a mix of UK and non-UK Health Promoting University co-ordinators (n=5); and two online questionnaires were distributed to non-UK network co-ordinators (n=6) and non-UK Health Promoting University co-ordinators (n=10). Through thematic analysis, a number of key themes emerged that build a new conceptualisation of the whole university approach (see Fig. 1): building a broad understanding and framing of health; developing a supportive ethos and culture; embedding health into the university and joining up areas of work; focusing on the whole population; and facing challenges and seizing opportunities. The study elicited rich and wide-ranging views from multiple stakeholders from universities and networks across four continents, confirming Health Promoting Universities as a truly global movement. Looking ahead, there are clear opportunities and challenges. First, the media narrative of a student mental health ‘crisis’ has focused universities’ attention on ‘health’, but from a single issue ‘illness’ perspective. This risks detracting from the whole system Health Promoting Universities approach. Second, even with the Okanagan Charter inspiring individuals and universities, there are still major challenges in translating the rhetoric of whole system approaches into meaningful action within large, complex and culturally diverse organisations.

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