Modern students are coddled snowflakes, unable to cope with a diversity of opinion, while their lecturers are made of much sterner stuff, having grown up in an era when intellectual and emotional challenge was still synonymous with a university education.
That’s one theory, anyway. There is certainly no denying that mental ill health among students is on the rise. As our cover feature explains, there was a fivefold increase in the number of UK students disclosing a mental health condition in the 10 years leading up to 2016, and the picture is similar around the world.
It seems doubtful that the causality is straightforward. Perhaps Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt were on to something when they suggested in a widely read 2015 article in The Atlantic that universities were only adding to the problem by offering students trigger warnings that prevented them from developing the cognitive skills required to “live in a world full of potential offenses” by facing up to reality in a clear-eyed and unemotional way. But no doubt a host of other factors play a role, among them social media, high debt and soaring house prices, and also perhaps the fact that merely earning a degree, even from a “top” university, is no longer enough to distinguish yourself from the crowd in the scramble for the best graduate jobs.
What is spoken about less often is that university lecturers themselves are increasingly feeling under the cosh emotionally. Our cover feature cites numerous studies indicating that academics are much more prone to mental ill health than the general population. This was borne out by Times Higher Education’s recent global work-life balance survey, which found that 68 per cent of academics were never or rarely able to switch off when they were away from work; 56 per cent had their sleep disrupted by work-related stress a reasonable amount or a lot; and 63 per cent felt that their job had a significant or large negative effect on their mental health.
Again, the reasons are doubtless multi-factorial. Some of those suggested in our feature include academics’ social isolation, their deep personal identification with their work, the external and internal demands for perfectionism and the need for frequent affirmation. Moreover, extending the boundaries of knowledge and understanding and transmitting that clearly and memorably to others is always going to be a demanding undertaking, requiring a certain emotional resilience that not everyone is fortunate enough to possess. And there is plenty of evidence that academia has long taken its toll on the emotions.
Moreover, there is mental strain in every walk of life, and by no means all of it is caused primarily by professional conditions. If universities ever were ivory towers, sheltering their residents from the trials and tribulations of their surrounding societies, they certainly are no longer.
That said, universities need not adopt the most mentally destructive elements of modern management-by-numbers. The demands of the academic calling, already weighty and relentless, do seem to be increasing inexorably. For instance, in our work-life survey, 40 per cent of academics said that they worked 10 hours or more each weekday, and 41 per cent reported that this had increased over the past three years – compared with 12 per cent who said that it had decreased.
There are clearly things that universities could do to lessen modern academics’ sense that however fast they run, they will still barely manage to stay on the treadmill. They could avoid giving individuals exacting targets on research income and numbers of publications, and threatening them with redundancy if they fail to hit the mark. They could commit in greater numbers to not judging people on where they last published, making whole careers dependent on the judgement of two or three referees hastily selected by busy section editors at the journals with the highest impact factors. They could award more permanent contracts sooner in people’s careers. They could recruit only as many students as reasonable teaching loads allow. And they could take a stronger stand against students’ demands for ever more feedback and contact hours.
Among those students, of course, is the next generation of academics. But university leaders should consider this: if those future professors really are less psychologically robust than the current generation, then, in the absence of decisive action, mental ill health in academia is only going to get worse.