A recent survey of university students has found alarming rates of anxiety, self harm and substance abuse. Of the 38,000 students surveyed by the Insight Network, 87.7% said they struggle with anxiety, 50.3% have thoughts of self-harm, and 44.7% use alcohol or drugs to deal with their problems. Rates of mental distress are highest among second and third year students.
There are some reasons that we can rule out as being the cause of this mental distress.
Students are under pressure, but not any more so than students in other countries. In fact, British universities tend to be generous with extensions, resits, repeats, as they are interested in getting their hands on the £9,250 a year fees. In France, by contrast, one third of students are thrown out after the first year. Also, unlike in most poorer countries, students do not flood into the courses most likely to yield jobs. Thousands study courses like English Literature, knowing well in advance that it will have no bearing on their future work. It seems more likely that the cause lies in high levels of inequality within the UK.
As described in the ground-breaking work of Richard Williamson and Kate Pickett (The Inner Level), there is now extensive evidence that shows that societies with high levels of inequality are psychologically toxic. Inequality generates status anxiety especially among the low paid, which in turn leads to a range of maladaptive coping strategies: social withdrawal, depression, self-harm and addiction. Today’s students do not only face these problems but were raised by adults who also faced these problems.
How students perform in their academic studies and in the graduate jobs market are big factors in determining future income and their place in capitalism's pecking order - or at least it appears this way. The pressure to perform during these brief years can lead to a downward spiral where increased anxiety leads to poor focus, increased social awkwardness and depression. Fear of failure can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Research shows that people from low income families suffer the most status anxiety. Students from low income families are also three times more likely to live with their parents and commute to lectures. At some universities over 50% of students live at home. For these students, university must be stripped of its social content. Universities are enormous institutions which gather together tens of thousands of strangers in a highly competitive ostensible-meritocracy. Nothing else in society is comparable.
People who work in very large workplaces also have smaller units (workshops, offices, work teams) to anchor themselves in. Within the university there are almost no such smaller units. Some courses define subgroups which might provide students with some potential social anchors, but within these subgroups students are then pitted against one another in intense competition. Other courses have students doing their studies on a "modular" basis on a very atomised basis.
There is research in the USA which suggests that smaller schools are not in fact better for mental health than big schools. However schools are not comparable. School children have many more social anchors within school and at home. Even if they don't like the way the teachers pay attention to them, they know that the teachers do pay attention. Life is not atomised.
It seems likely that marketisation of higher education has exacerbated an already rising trend of mental illness. Alongside the financial pressures that mean many students have to do paid employment alongside their studies, there has also been a powerful ideological shift in how we think about university education. The introduction of top-up fees was accompanied by a powerful bourgeois agitation linking university education to future earning potential. 60% of university students describe their courses as poor "value for money". The idea of "learning for learnings sake" has been pushed back in favour of a commodified version of education.
Graduates are supposed to cash in their bachelor degrees for high paying jobs. From an early age we are taught that the primary goal of education is to earn more money. Yet in reality income inequality reduces social mobility. Graduates from low income families earn on average 8% less than graduates from better off families even when they achieve the same grades, in the same subjects from the same universities. Graduates who went to private school earn on average 45% more than graduates from state schools. As societies become more unequal, your parents wealth becomes the main determinant of future earnings, rather than your level of education.
The publication of this report has been accompanied by calls for better mental health support in universities. This is important and extra counselling provision may ameliorate some of the immediate distress felt by many young people. It may well save lives. However we now possess incontrovertible evidence that life in an unequal society is extremely bad for our mental health. There are undoubtedly particular pressure points such as the second and third years of university, where status anxiety is felt most acutely. Only by tackling income inequality, and the root causes of income inequality, will we create an education system and a society where young people can flourish.