The crisis in student mental health isn’t about individual behaviour – but the marketisation of higher education

The young have been systematically marginalised: is it any surprise that their mental health should suffer as a result?

There is a crisis in student mental health at higher education institutions in the United Kingdom. The well-publicised events at the University of Bristol provide a public face for what many in the sector have recognised anecdotally for some time: students are increasingly distressed to the point of total mental collapse.

The minister responsible for universities, Sam Gyimah, has made student mental health one of his priorities. At the start of this academic year, he wrote to university vice-chancellors urging them to create internal structures to ameliorate the issue.

Here he writes positively of the Universities UK document Step Change. This framework advises universities to create internal structures that promote what it terms ‘healthy behaviours.’ Both Gyimah and Universities UK should be applauded for highlighting this issue with a view to providing some material means of resolving it. The first step to solving a problem, after all, is acknowledging it exists.

However, the implication of their pronouncements is that student well-being depends essentially on individual behaviour and that institutional structures alone are sufficient to attend to it. This is wrong and directs the attention away from the actual, structural reasons for this recent, but gradually rising, crisis.

Student distress is directly linked to the monetisation of higher education in the United Kingdom. Until this basic truth is acknowledged—and it really is hiding in plain sight—the issue will not go away.

Monetisation has eroded the traditional precepts of higher education and opened it up to unstable and often viscerally unsettling economic forces that have permeated the undergraduate degree and the minds of students.

It is difficult to see how the prospect of debts in the region of £50,000 could birth anything other than anxiety. This stark financial fact has contributed to more than half of students working (according to a now three year old survey) while studying, adding to their already large workload. It might be added—speculatively but not without reason—that the rise of the gig economy has facilitated this shift thus exposing students to precarious, on-demand, zero-hours, highly pressured labour that cannot but come with a mental health burden.

Then there are the more muddy and elusive issues of how students conceive of the value of their degrees in the face of marketisation. Gyimah has encouraged the development of a Money Supermarket style ‘value for money’ metric for describing the worth of study. The development of this entity goes against decades of pedagogical research.

This research suggests that the use of ‘extrinsic’ motivators (grades, salary, and so forth) actively diminish learning for students compared to ‘intrinsic’ ones (love, joy, wonder, curiosity). If students view their degree in this way, stripping it of its own self-sustaining sense of value, then surely their own sense of self-worth will diminish.

Indeed, the increased emphasis on overly instrumental, reductively utilitarian modes for describing higher education’s value has undermined the undergraduate degree full stop. While New Labour played a central role in the introduction of fees, there was never any doubt of their commitment to the idea of the university itself.

Now, however, students are told time and time again that the worth of their learning lies purely in results that come with employment and that rather than being students, with all the possibilities that come with that word, they should consider themselves consumers, a far more abject position.

While monetisation and marketisation provide direct causes of anxiety, it is naïve to think that student mental health can be separated from more existential, broad concerns.

Over the past years, government policies have targeted the young as the special recipients of austerity economics, ignored their concerns about Brexit, practically blocked them out of the housing market, and created a tangible threat to the future habitation of the planet through their continuing apathy over the environment. The young have been systematically marginalised: is it any surprise that their mental health should suffer as a result?

Any meaningful attempt to improve student well-being has to be synoptic and holistic, extending far beyond the boundaries of the university to broader questions of how we treat the young, how we think about the value of education, and the sort of world to which they are and will be exposed to while studying.

Edward Sugden is a lecturer at King’s College London.

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