Sam Gyimah, Minister for Universities is right to highlight the increase in mental health problems suffered by a growing proportion of University students, see the Guardian article ‘Student Mental Health Must be Top Priority’ 28 June 2018; he’s also right to call upon Vice-Chancellors to see this as an issue that requires ‘serious leadership from the top’. However, what Mr Gyimah must also do is understand the inter-relationship between the inflated cost of ‘Tuition Fees’, the burden of starting your adult life with more than £30,000 of debt, and the overall ‘student experience’, with Universities competing to offer their students fuller experiences and students’ increasingly anxious to ensure that they fully benefit from those experiences:
It would of course be too simple to suggest that there is a direct relationship between the increasing numbers of students, now estimated to be 1 in every 4 who access their Universities mental health facilities for support, and the escalating cost of Tuition Fees; however, it doesn’t take a genius (or a politician!) to understand that debt can cause stress and stress is often a factor in poor mental health.
Talking to students in the course of preparing legal claims arising out the UCU Strike Action earlier this year the Leigh Day team have been struck by how the disruption caused by the strikes resulted in increased stress and anxiety for students, particularly those with underlying health issues, on low incomes or studying part time whilst caring for their own children, elderly parents or holding down jobs (have a look at some of our case studies on our website). The general feeling across those we’ve spoken to is that students wholeheartedly support the lecturers’ right to strike and that lecturers deserve for their pensions to be protected, but that as students they too deserve the full benefit of the expensive education for which many will be paying long after graduation day.
Mr Stratton, a student at SOAS who has instructed Leigh Day, has commented as follows:
"Students are under immense pressure to achieve, the drive can often seem relentless and sustained and any detrimental grades or results can lead to mental health issues amongst students. These concerns are often additional to normal life problems such as family or relationship issues, finances and child care or caring responsibilities.
"During my career as a mental health nurse I was often called upon to care for students who had quite debilitating mental health issues and frequently this had an adverse effect on their ability to study and achieve the grades they desired culminating in a cycle of despair. Reporting low moods, tearfulness, anxiety and an inability to concentrate for long periods of time, students stop attending lectures and tutorials and become withdrawn and isolated. It is somewhat ironic that years later I should find myself in the exact same position.
"The repercussions of the strike action continue to have a negative impact on students and the University’s apparent reluctance to recognise and support this is alarming. There needs to be a more concerted effort within the education establishments with regards to targeted support for students with mental health needs post-strike action and consideration given for mitigating circumstances for those students whose ability to produce work was diminished by the repercussions of the strike.
"The strike action has sought to ensure that I continue to struggle with my own mental health and caring responsibilities and this is without any doubt exacerbated by SOAS’s refusal to acknowledge this and the impact that the strike had on my ability to perform to my own expectations."
Mr Stratton is one of many students who have informed us that the consequences of the strike action has had a severe impact on their mental health. If Mr Gyimah is serious about improving mental health across the student-body in the UK he must see that body as a whole, analysing all of the factors which cause stress and anxiety to students. If and when he does so he will begin to understand the importance of the legal claims that thousands of students have decided to bring against their Universities – these claims are about increasing the visibility of students as individuals with rights that deserve to be protected and enforced as a matter of law but also as a matter of principle.