It’s first thing on a Monday morning and I have a distressed student in my office. She’s telling me about her mental health problems and I’m running her through university procedure for deferring her exams. I don’t have to look up the number for the Student Wellbeing Team; after countless such meetings with students to discuss their grades, it is as firmly etched in my brain as the number for IT support.
After she leaves and I have made the necessary referrals, I reflect on a recent broadcast on Radio 4’s You and Yours regarding the student mental health crisis. In it, one parent suggests that lecturers need to take more responsibility for pastoral care; another insists that if a student’s attendance is starting to slip, the university should contact their parents. Nor are these by any means the first people to insist that universities be more proactive. But it strikes me that such suggestions might be missing the point.
Commentators have suggested explanations for the rise in mental health issues, including social media, the rising cost of living and stress about employability. But few question where our understanding of the link between learning and mental well-being has gone. Many students I encounter appear to see studying itself as an additional – and in some cases monstrous – form of stress, instead of, as in the ancient Greek ideal, a source of flourishing.
A recent study into perfectionism in students, led by Thomas Curran of the University of Bath, links that phenomenon to a “rise in meritocracy and neoliberalism”. The wealth and social status arising from gaining entry to top universities and proceeding to a lucrative career “insidiously connects” education and professional achievement with “innate personal value”, Curran argues. This entails that “a strong need to strive, perform, and achieve [is now] at the centre of modern life”.
If the stakes are so high, no wonder that receiving negative feedback for an assignment causes a monumental anxiety that rules out any appreciation of the value of failure, or even curiosity about how to address negative feedback – a skill that remains relevant for success across all paths, in personal as well as professional life.
The top three reasons that students apply to university are that they are passionate about the subject, want to continue their learning and development or have a particular career in mind. However, once they arrive, their whole previous experience of learning is upturned. I vividly recall asking a student his reasons for plagiarising almost an entire essay. “Things are so difficult here,” he replied. “No one tells you what to think.”
This student was perfectly capable, but he was so used to being drilled for exams, and so scaremongered into believing that the only way to a good job is to get a good degree, that his appreciation of the actual experience of learning, of finding answers through self-motivated creativity and hard work – potentially punctuated by repeated failure – was woefully underdeveloped.
At the recent UK strikes for academic pensions, one university picket line was adorned by a banner reading: “The University is a Factory”. I cannot help but link this sentiment to the mental health crisis. Since the rise in English tuition fees, there has been increasing pressure to make sure university teaching provides “value for money”. If those who don’t, can’t or won’t fit the mould of the “ideal student” are instead finding the university experience to be a catalyst for mental health difficulties, perhaps it is a different kind of value that we should be pursuing.
If there is a solution to all this, it is undoubtedly complex and wide-reaching. But we should start from the premise that education can and should be central to good living, and proceed to change the things that have stopped it being so. Imagine: a university experience from which students depart with an increased sense of resilience and independence, and an ability to face life with confidence in their capacity to be creative, even – indeed, especially – when faced with failure.
If we must use such a term as “value for money”, I can’t think of a better example of it.
Beth Guilding is an academic and writer based at Goldsmiths, University of London.