The Student Mental Health Crisis

More than 50% of students are struggling with mental health problems since Covid, according to an NUS survey – but the failures that led to this point go beyond the pandemic to the corporate nature of our universities.

After six weeks on a waiting list, I had my first CBT session. My therapist told me I’m one of many young people seeking support at the moment, in one of my first pep talks: you are not alone.

She wasn’t wrong. More than 50 percent of students say their mental health declined in 2020, according to a survey for the National Union of Students (NUS). Only a fifth of the students surveyed had sought mental health support, and 29 percent of those reported exacerbated issues, the survey found.

As education becomes more heavily marketised, students have been redefined as consumers whose life chances are best improved by paying extortionate rent to complete essays in their bedrooms. The pressure of doing a degree is increasingly paired with high costs and minimal contact time; this year, social isolation was thrown into the mix, and the unsurprising result was a mass mental health crisis among young people.

‘It’s completely unnecessary for me to be in halls, and for the luxury I pay £500 a month,’ Sam tells me. She’s a first-year Fine Art student at Manchester Met University. She likes art and food, Lana Del Rey and horror films – but beneath the cool veneer, I encounter someone whose self-image is crumbling under pressure: ‘How’s my mental health? Not great.’ She sounds tired, as if recollecting the last twelve weeks is a physical weight.

In September, Sam moved into Cambridge Halls, which would controversially be locked down a week later as coronavirus spread throughout Manchester. She explored the city in freshers’ week, had fun with her flatmates, and then one evening tried to go food shopping and was told by security guards that she wasn’t allowed to leave.

‘I went back to my room and had a big breakdown. I was sobbing. I wasn’t thinking rationally. At the time, I was broke – I stupidly hadn’t managed to get my Student Finance sorted yet. So I couldn’t even afford to order food. I ate noodles for a week. It was really lonely.’ Sam began to blame herself for being at a disadvantage, even though she could do little to change her circumstances. Eventually, the university gave students a £50 food voucher.

She had envisioned spending hours in art studios, creating and bonding with coursemates, but when she arrived, she received an email telling her that contact hours had been drastically cut down in tandem with all learning being moved online. ‘When I was doing my A-levels, I really connected with my art teacher,’ she says. ‘He motivated me. Now, I probably see my tutor once every two weeks. I’m in university online for a maximum of two hours a day.’

A year ago, Tom, a 21-year-old Modern History and Economics student, interrupted his degree after a nervous breakdown due to exam stress. He came back this autumn to find his contact hours had gone even further down, his learning experience was lower quality, class sizes had risen dramatically, and he had minimum contact with his peers.

‘I took a year out to look after myself,’ Tom says, ‘but coming back to this experience has had a massive impact on my anxiety and stress levels. The whole system just breeds loneliness. It’s totally unreasonable and borderline abusive to demand people show up at a university when that university knows it can’t deliver what it’s promised.’

The situation of students since Covid has attracted plenty of media attention; what’s been less talked about is the history of neoliberal reform in universities and the precedent it set for 2020. The ‘student mental health crisis’ was a concern well before the first Covid case hit British shores.

The cost of education has risen sharply over the last twenty years. In 1998, students paid up to £1,000 a year for tuition; by 2004, the cost of one year had risen to £3,000, and it rose again in 2010, under the new coalition government, to £9,000 a year. Now, one year at university stands at £9,250.

And as the expense of a degree spirals into unaffordability, its value in a crowded job market dwindles. Graduates born in 1990 earn 11 percent more than non-graduates, but that’s almost halved compared to the premium enjoyed by graduates born in 1970. 31 percent of graduates are found to have more education than is required for their jobs, and up to one in 10 graduates from some universities are out of work a year after leaving.

With unemployment figures on the up, this problem is only growing worse – which means the pressure on students to work harder and do better in their degrees, in order to stand out, is mounting. That pressure increases for students from working-class backgrounds, who are likely to be more conscious of the risks of unemployment than their affluent peers; getting a degree is still a considerable privilege, but the number of doors it opens has changed since our parents’ days.

The reforms brought in by Cameron and Clegg saw students transformed into consumers, and as well as plugging the hole left by the evaporation of public money, their fees go in part towards six-figure salaries for university management. Imperial College London’s Vice-Chancellor is paid £554,000 a year; Cambridge’s is paid £475,000.

They are among the 60 percent of all university VCs who saw their pay increase in 2018/’19, a statistic which led UCU general secretary Jo Grady to question why junior staff’s pay has been held down and pensions have been attacked. Both academic and pastoral staff face a larger workload for lower pay and more insecure contracts, which doesn’t bode well for student mental health, either.

Tom tells me his economics professors were put in charge of his mental health support plan, and they admitted to him they found it difficult, being unqualified to offer counselling. The UCU have highlighted that university staff are facing ‘unmanageable’ workloads, often demanding 55-hour weeks, and citing excessive pressure as a key cause of their own stress.

‘I started using the counselling service in 2018,’ says Tom. ‘I returned to it this year because the pandemic has made my university experience so much worse. The service hasn’t changed since then. The counsellors themselves are fantastic, but they’re under ridiculous pressure. The supply isn’t meeting the demand, which isn’t good when you have acute mental health symptoms.’

‘The lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things,’ wrote Arundhati Roy for the Financial Times back in April. At universities, the pandemic illuminated a pre-existing and clear deficit in student care and the contribution of marketisation to fraught disparities in equality.

Three years ago, Manchester students met with their university vice-chancellors to discuss the handling of the UCU pensions dispute. Vice President of Learning, Teaching and Experience Professor Clive Agnew told them: ‘The contract is to deliver a degree. That is the focus.’ This prompted one student to ask, ‘And not our education?’ No answer was given in reply.

Although blunt, Agnew wasn’t necessarily incorrect. Neoliberalism at universities has created a disconnect between ‘education’ – a process of growth and enrichment – and the acquisition of a degree, which has become a product to be bought and sold. This inequity is at the heart of the mental health crisis at universities: without decent public funding, institutions simply cannot deliver on what it is they advertise.

Instead of enriched, students and staff are disempowered and disenfranchised by their conditions, and all the while the scale of deprivation worsens in the UK. More broadly, an ongoing cultural crisis of mental illness under capitalism is taking hold of our social fabric: after all, inequality, on which the foundations of neoliberal capitalism is built, is a major determinant of mental ill-health. The way in which the pandemic has exacerbated this crisis is surely a sign we should break with these ties and create a world anew.

If we can rid education of marketisation, then it can be reclaimed as a space for collective empowerment and equality. Direct action is already being taken at universities, and it’s working: in November, rent-striking Manchester students won the biggest payout in history. By organising, we can unburden students and staff – and move forward much better off for it.