Last week, I headed back to my old university (the University of Reading) to talk to some students about some of the biggest issues that they face today.
I met with a panel of second- and third-year students, and we chatted about pretty much everything that comes under the umbrella of student life: accommodation, studying, socialising and finance.
As we spoke, a recurring theme became apparent: the pressure for students to achieve it all. To get high grades, to do the extra reading, to be part of numerous societies, to undertake work experience, to do paid work, all while trying to socialise and enjoy themselves.
While it was obvious that I was speaking to high-achieving, ambitious students (think members of multiple committees, holding down jobs and internships and dedicated to their studies) and while not all students have that same drive, they are certainly not the only students to feel this way.
Polly Doyle, a third-year geography student, said that as well as her studies, she was juggling keeping up with tasks on the committees of several societies, working part time and thinking about work experience to boost her CV for when she graduates. It sometimes felt like her to-do list was never-ending, she said, so she tried to give herself one night off every week to socialise with friends – but even then she often found herself thinking about deadlines and things that she had to do for the societies that she was part of.
This raises concerns that this pressure to do everything might be causing students to sacrifice the primary activity of university: study. New research this week revealed that UK students are studying less and working more. The UK Engagement Survey conducted by the Higher Education Academy found that 48 per cent of respondents spent 11 or more hours a week studying independently, compared with 52 per cent of students who undertook paid work during term time. This was based on the responses of 35,927 undergraduates at 42 institutions.
If this trend continues, there is potential that we could reach a tipping point at which students are working long hours just to finance their studies and, ironically, leaving very little time for them to actually study.
The students at the University of Reading cited a flawed student loan system as one of the main reasons why so many students had to work while at university. For example, Millie Farquhar, a second-year English student, said that because her parents were high earners, she received the lowest amount of student loan. Despite their income, however, her parents are unable to help her financially because they also support three other siblings of hers, so she must work five part-time jobs to make ends meet. She also observed that the lack of financial education at school meant that many students were incapable of budgeting or making their student loan funds last for the entire term.
Elizabeth Withinshaw, a second-year English student, offered a slightly different perspective on term-time work. She really appreciated her part-time retail job for giving her a few hours outside the “university bubble” with people who aren’t students, and taking her mind off studying for a while. So it seems that there are pros and cons to having a packed schedule.
Inevitably, however, this pressure to excel at everything can lead to stress, anxiety and other mental health problems – it’s now well documented that many young people experience mental health issues while at university. As third-year politics student Fiona Paterson said: “Everybody knows someone who has broken.” She spoke about a friend of hers who experienced high levels of stress and anxiety and was advised to take some time out by the university. But this only caused her more distress about finishing university later than she had initially planned.
It’s concerning that bright and driven students are buckling under the intense pressure that they face to achieve high grades and make themselves attractive to employers, all while trying to manage the expectation that university is the best time of your life. It sounds pretty exhausting.
However, there is support within universities to help those who feel overwhelmed and experience mental health concerns. It was encouraging to hear Millie speak about how the university was helping her to find safe study spaces on campus because her anxiety had often stopped her from entering the library, where renovation works are currently taking place.
On a final positive note, I asked the students if they would still apply to university given what they now know. The answer was a resounding “yes”, with Polly stating that university “had opened up a wide range of opportunities” and that she had benefited a great deal from being there.That’s a good sign.
Required Reading is the regular blog from Times Higher Education student editor Seeta Bhardwa.