The sad news of a spate of student suicides in the UK has recently made national headlines. As someone who has taught in universities for most of my life, I believe that these deaths could be a consequence of the whole student experience. The unhealthy campus environment, which resembles a factory more than a community of learners, is just one element of this.
The social framework that leads school-leavers and their parents to assume that attending university is a necessary stage of modern life has its own momentum, creating unexamined expectations from parents and peers and impelling sixth-formers through A levels. Winning a place at a “good” university is seen as adding value to the family, and so the pressure to perform begins even before starting the first term.
Some students become part of a group soon after arriving on campus; others become isolated and overwhelmed by the production line system of written assignments, with very little tuition and impossible deadlines for submission. When I speak to current students, their main complaints are that lectures are insufficient for the purpose of preparing assignments, and tutors have no time to help them when they need assistance. Students’ parents tell me that they are forced to hire private tutors for their children; and they also tell me of their concerns for the well-being of their offspring.
Worst of all is the lack of any sense of care for students. Not only the lecturers but other university staff appear to operate as if the campus, with its schedules and regulations, is now a factory that produces graduates. This, combined with sloppy teaching, and inadequate feedback from tutors, creates the kind of despair that would cause any healthy person to become ill.
Universities have changed. They now recruit many more overseas students, whose fees provide them with a vital financial boost. But the overseas parents are on the same loop as local families – they also believe that a degree is a sign of success. They have no idea how much their children suffer for their achievements and their parents’ reflected glory; because their children are too scared to tell their parents that, in Britain, an offer of a place on a university course should come with a health warning.