Academics from the University of Southampton and Solent NHS Trust found that students paying £9,000 fees experience symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress for longer in their first year than those paying less.
But by the second year of study, these symptoms have diminished to similar levels as those paying lower fees, according to the study published on 10 February in the Journal of Public Health, titled “The Impact of Tuition Fees Amount on Mental Health over Time in British Students”.
Previous research has found a relationship between debt levels, financial difficulties and mental health difficulties among students in Britain.
To find out whether the introduction of higher tuition fees in England and Wales in 2012 affected student mental health a group of researchers led by Thomas Richardson, visiting tutor in the School of Psychology at Southampton, surveyed almost 400 undergraduate students about their alcohol use, mental health and stress levels.
Three different groups of students took part in the study: those paying £3,000 to £4,000 per year, before the introduction of higher fees; those studying in Scotland, where Scottish students pay no fees; and those paying up to £9,000, studying from 2011 onwards.
The researchers found that there was no significant difference in symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress and general mental health between the groups at the time of the first survey. But by the second, those charged less for tuition had seen an improvement in their symptoms. By the third and fourth survey those paying higher and lower fees again had similar levels of mental health issues.
Dr Richardson said: “At present the tuition fees increase does not appear to have had a major impact on the mental health of undergraduates. However differences between those charged higher fees may not become apparent for many years and so ongoing monitoring of the prevalence of mental health problems in students and their relationship with debt is needed.”
Data from the survey on socio-economic status and eating attitudes were used in another study, published on January in The International Journal of Eating Disorders.
This study, also led by Dr Richardson, found that female students who experience financial difficulties at university may be at increased risk of developing an eating disorder.