Students’ debilitating fear of failure must be addressed

On University Mental Health Day, Geoffrey Cantor calls on institutions to significantly expand their mental health provision

March 2, 2017
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There has been a substantial rise in the number of UK schoolchildren and university students requiring help with mental health problems. One recent report estimates that the number of students seeking counselling has increased by 50 per cent over the past five years. No wonder the University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN) has felt the need to establish a University Mental Health Day, the sixth iteration of which is today.

In my experience, one big growth factor in counselling services’ workloads is the debilitating fear of failure experienced by an increasing number of students, especially at more prestigious universities. Assessed coursework and, particularly, examinations, are the driving force of these students’ lives; other activities, including socialising, become a source of guilt and are all but eliminated.

For such students, failure typically doesn’t mean missing the pass mark. It means scoring anything below the top grade. For instance, a student I am aware of, who had convinced himself that he had failed an exam, was still upset even when he actually got 85 per cent. Another received a mark in the low 70s but was convinced that the examiners had made a mistake and that, in reality, he had failed.

This fear is difficult to eliminate and it poisons students’ attitudes to their work. They cannot enjoy an intellectual challenge or appreciate the beauty of a text, an equation or an argument. Instead, they restlessly strive to master any topic that may come up in the exam. In the weeks leading up to it, their level of anxiety rises, resulting in sleepless nights, a poor appetite, depression and even self-harm.

Doctoral students thus afflicted usually encounter extreme difficulties in writing their dissertations, amid anxiety that their work is not of a sufficiently high standard. Such students do not appreciate that the dissertation and viva are a test of competence, not brilliance. Instead, they worry that they might have missed some crucial article in the secondary literature, or omitted some decisive experiment, or that their analysis just isn’t good enough.

But where is this all-consuming fear of failure coming from? It can be an aspect of broader mental health problems, such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, many other factors appear relevant. One is the ever-increasing emphasis on academic success in our target-driven culture; reports of high levels of mental illness among students in China, where passing competitive exams is particularly crucial in terms of future life chances, illustrate the perils of going too far down this route. In addition, many students feel stressed about their finances and the substantial loans that they have to shoulder.

Fear of failure can also be accentuated by other, more local, factors. Schools – particularly prestigious private schools – often project a highly competitive ethos, causing some students to drop out of the race, while others enter it with an obsessive determination to succeed. Ambitious parents or high-achieving older siblings can also be a source of pressure. Children of immigrants often feel pressurised by parents demanding top marks in order to affirm their family’s social standing in the community.

It is not easy to coax such students out of a conviction that the world will end if they get only a moderate grade. A major intellectual and emotional revision of priorities is required: a willingness to relish the intellectual challenge presented by their course while also seeking a better work-life balance. Personal tutors and supervisors can advise on how to reorient studies in a less stressful way, but some students will require professional help from a mentor, counsellor or therapist.

The problem is that such mental health provisions are under severe pressure, and do not always deliver an effective service. They need to be expanded significantly if they are to cope with the increasing number of students who require support. This will also involve increasing their funding, and I endorse the Higher Education Policy Institute’s (Hepi) recent call for universities to triple their spending in this area. But are the government and universities listening?

Geoffrey Cantor is emeritus professor of the history of science at the University of Leeds. He works part time as a specialist mental health mentor to university students.

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