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Crisis on campus

Thursday 6 May 2021

It’s a terrible time to be a student. Covid-19 has exposed that mental health support at universities is inadequate – but young people have ideas about how to fix it


Today’s students are navigating uncharted waters. Upping sticks to unfamiliar towns, seeking new social circles, and getting to grips with new ways of learning were daunting even before a global pandemic struck. But it did – and it has starkly exposed the chasm that already existed between what universities advertise as the “student experience” and the reality of life on campus.

This has become clear to us from our conversations with tens of students and their parents. Take Meg, a first-year undergraduate at University College London. She spent much of the first few weeks of university confined to her accommodation, her floor put into lockdown twice. And, in lockdown, students weren’t able to access clothes washing facilities, and were told to buy underwear on Amazon Prime.

“This was really the first sign to me that there was inadequate planning on behalf of universities when it came to the safety and wellbeing of students” says Meg.

Before the pandemic, Karen was in her first year at a top Russell Group university when she began suffering from an eating disorder. She sought help from the chaplain, a key member of the pastoral support network on campus. “He told me that the most important thing was that I got a First,” says Karen. When she asked what he would do about her eating, he replied, “That’s not my concern; my concern is your grade.”

Mary’s child had been struggling with their mental health prior to the pandemic, after a short illness meant they fell behind on classes. They were called to see the university dean, for what appeared to be a rebuking and were scared they would be kicked out. But, as in Karen’s case, the university’s concerns were purely academic – not pastoral.

Lockdown has made the situation for many students go from bad to worse. Patchy tuition and online learning made it more difficult for tutors to keep track of the wellbeing of students like Mary’s child. Without intervention from the institution responsible for their support, their condition spiralled. They decided to take a year out from her studies, but still returned to campus.

Worried about her child’s wellbeing, Mary contacted their personal tutor. “I thought it would be really helpful if they could meet or contact them, so that [they] could come up with some sort of plan.” 

But the tutor evaded even parental intervention. “She replied to me in quite an unpleasant, aggressive way, saying I cannot discuss a student because of the Data Protection Act.” After following up again, Mary heard nothing.

Close to one in two university students experience serious personal, emotional, behavioural or mental health problems demanding professional support. Alarmingly, surveys suggest that 70 per cent of UK students have experienced worsening mental health during the pandemic – a much higher proportion than their international peers.

Covid has only exposed an existing crisis in care and community on campus. Problems are routinely ignored, and, when they are recognised, they are often treated as trivial or none of the university authorities’ business. Much less a watershed in wellbeing, the pandemic has excused institutions from tackling mental health problems embedded in the university experience.

When Jane joined Lancaster University in lockdown, she was detached from her friends, family, and fellow students. The first time she saw other students from her accommodation was during an Easter Egg hunt, and she has only once seen the faces of her classmates. “Nobody even talks in the seminars. So you don’t even get to connect with the people that you’re in a class with. You just see a load of initials on the screen,” she says. 

Remote learning shrouds students who are in need of vital support, making it harder for them to reach out or be seen. Students share a sense of “fatigue”, being “burnt out” with exhaustion, and are sometimes driven to desperate measures. Jane feels guilty for twice breaking lockdown rules to return to their parents’ home. “[I was] physically trapped in my room… thrown into that environment with no escape from it.”

Campuses were already weak communities before Covid. When Amelia Salmon arrived at Newcastle University in 2016, she was shocked to find her course had only eight hours of contact time. At school, she saw a tutor every week. Like Jane, she says that “no one was interested to get to know me… I felt so disconnected from the university. There was no sense of community.” 

This ongoing individualisation of the university experience now risks being excused as part of the “new normal”. In the first lockdown, final year students facing exams were forced to adapt to patchy – sometimes non-existent – online learning. Little has changed since. 

“I feel like I’ve learned nothing in my last year”, says Jane, because Lancaster’s “adjustment to online learning has been throwing us a bunch of 90s websites, and hoping for the best. It’s basically all been self-taught.”

Some students have been worse affected, compounded by the dual disruption of Covid and strikes among teaching staff. Jack is a third-year Chemical Physics student at Edinburgh University whose learning normally depends on interaction and experimentation during lengthy lab sessions. He says that the pandemic has weakened participation and curiosity because “no one wants to be seen asking a stupid question on a Microsoft Teams tutorial”.

Even those who make themselves visible are failed by the system. Romily Ulvestad joined Edinburgh University in 2017. Struggling in her second year, she reached out to the university’s student support team and her personal tutor seeking “special circumstances,” which means the university takes challenging circumstances into account if a student can’t complete their work.

But her concerns were never addressed with appropriate seriousness – with fatal consequences. An internal university review following Romily’s recent suicide revealed that it had been aware of her mental health issues for two years and “more could and should have been done” to help her. 

These tragedies, the worst tragedies, spring out of everyday neglect – of underfunded, under-resourced, and neglected services. Universities boast flashy initiatives and ten-day referral targets while (in practice) funding cuts, lengthy waiting lists, and limited access to services remain common.

Regan Goodburn, a Leicester De Montfort student, described how her university’s counselling sessions are fully booked until November. Another student, Matthew, says the wait stops students reaching out at all. “It’s almost not worth the effort to contact people, because you’ll be put on a six month waiting list to get a call to start investigating how you feel.” 

As a result, students are forced to “prove themselves” or “play up” their “risk-level” to get the support they need – a deafening blow to the dignity and self-esteem of those already at rock bottom. “You have to be very honest, very quickly, in order for them to take you seriously and give you full access to everything that the union offers”, Jane explains.

Once they’re through the waiting list, Edinburgh University students then face another assessment before accessing their standard six sessions. For people with serious issues, “that is not even close to being enough,” says Nani Porenta, a final-year student.

Putting the onus on students to self-refer is already dangerous. But it is worse for those unable or unwilling to recognise their condition, particularly in this unique period of enforced isolation. Mary’s child had used the physical distance of the first lockdown to hide their sudden weight gain, erratic and aggressive behaviours like late night walks, and suicidal thoughts. Only at home could they receive the familial and private medical attention they so desperately needed. 

Private treatment is a last resort, but it isn’t accessible for most students. Postgraduate student Emily sought private support after waiting three weeks for an initial consultation by her university services. “I think the counsellor really wanted to know what we could do in 45 minutes to solve my problems,” she says. In contrast, she has never experienced difficulties accessing counselling as an undergraduate in the United States. 

But with services already stretched to breaking point, institutions have little capacity for preventative care. “I don’t think that the overarching university counselling services are equipped to handle the huge increase in people who have felt lonely, depressed or distraught because of this pandemic,” she says. “I don’t think they were equipped to handle it from the start.”

Funding alone won’t cut it. Take Cardiff University, where a Freedom of Information request revealed that direct staff costs for delivering mental health, counselling, and wellbeing support have almost doubled since 2015 to £733K. But so, too, have their waiting lists. 

Bristol University also boasts one of Britain’s biggest mental health budgets. It still ranks 72nd in the country for student satisfaction. But Michael Pearson, deputy head of student counselling, is genuinely proud of Bristol’s progress, citing wellbeing and student experience as their “absolute priorities”. He spends his free time working on Your Amazing Mind, a wellbeing podcast to “meet students where they are, rather than making them come to us”. 

“The students are inspiring, they’re incredible,” he explains. “It’s really hard work. We’re pushed, we’re stretched, but we do this because we love it.” 

Michael’s story highlights how care currently depends on individual staff, not institutions. Nani thinks she “got lucky” with her tutors, who have rapidly responded to her emails throughout, and even helped with her postgraduate application. 

“I think there’s this kind of divide between staff, where you have those who put in the extra effort now…and then those who before the pandemic already weren’t the greatest, have become even harder to catch,” she says.

Students are only students for a few years. Most universities take an equally short-term view of their duty of care, and thus their mental health and wellbeing remit. This explains the silence met by students who defer or graduate.

“I don’t know anyone who’s not scared about their future,” says Nani. She has decided to pursue a masters’ degree, but many of her friends are graduating this year. They feel “hopeless” – on the precipice of a job market empty of opportunities and saturated with competition.

“Whatever future they had imagined or hoped for has transformed,” Michael explains. Already navigating a disrupted academic year, students “have to use loads of energy to reinvent the future.” 

But institutions are detached from the lived reality of their students. Seven months after graduating from Edinburgh University, we received an email from their alumni services. It assured us that the University “understands” the plight of graduating into a pandemic-ravaged job market. Its idea of “support” was a six-step guide to mindful doodling, which concluded with a reminder to relieve any further stress by turning the page and scribbling on the other side.

Ben Leathem, from the mental health charity Student Minds, argues that this kind of advice is merely a plaster over a longer-term problem. “Things like mindfulness or doodling or yoga can help people, but I don’t think you’re addressing the root of the problem, which is that students can’t find jobs.”

There are other underlying problems, too. In the midst of the first wave, coverage of students’ return to campus was dominated by calls for tuition fee rebates. But, for the vast majority of students, a tuition fee rebate would have no immediate implications for their overall wellbeing. A recent report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students concluded that the best way to help students through the pandemic is “to provide them with the financial assistance they need now.” The emphasis here is on now.

Student worries are often multifaceted, embracing factors such as accommodation and income (students are overrepresented in the part-time, hospitality work that was predominantly impacted by the pandemic). Pigeonholing their problems as either academic or social ignores the particularities of their experience. Their wellbeing demands a holistic approach to care. 

Some universities are already doing this. At Nottingham Trent, end of semester surveys ask about teaching and lectures, but also about how the university is supporting students. 

Michael also advocates “co-production”, so “students have an influence over shaping the services they have access to”. This means paying more than just lip-service to feedback forms, and genuinely changing things in response to what students suggest.

Beyond installing individuals in symbolic senior roles, universities must get students meaningfully involved by equipping them with “resources, training [and] putting them in an important position,” he says. Giving them a degree of power would also help students get what they really want – to be a genuine part of their universities, not bitterly blaming the institutions for failing them.

Today’s students occupy a precarious space: they are consumers in theory, not in practice. The tuition fee loan system means that, even if they are faced with an inadequate service – or no service at all – they have no autonomy over where their funding goes in their university. Without a mechanism of accountability, institutions pursue a path of efficiency at the cost of inbuilt resilience.

Covid-19 will impact universities well beyond students’ return to campus. Alongside his work at Student Minds, Ben Leatham is also the programme manager at Student Space, an online platform launched and funded by the government in the wake of the pandemic. He argues that universities must “ensure that the support that’s been offered during the pandemic isn’t just a stopgap, it’s something that needs to carry on long into the future”.

The Student Minds’ University Mental Health Charter pushes for greater cooperation between universities, and the government, rather than competition. It calls for them to invest in routine learning from each other’s best practices, and in ensuring that support connects academic and pastoral, short and long-term, and student and staff networks.

Covid has created a moment of reckoning for the UK’s higher education system, as it has for most areas of society. The crises unfolding on campus – from the short-term issues with online teaching to the long-term neglect of student wellbeing – are affecting UK students now. 

The solution doesn’t lie in simply reducing tuition fees. Nor will it be found in plugging empty funding into redundant support models. Rather, progress will be made by working with students. Universities must reinforce that they will not only support students now, but that they are willing to foster the conditions for sustainable long-term wellbeing. 

The pandemic isn’t just a moment for the diagnosis of this problem, it must be the beginning of its necessary treatment.

Some names have been changed.

Megan Kenyon is a Tortoise student ambassador and Jelena Sofronijevic is an Assistant Producer at Podmasters. Both joined Tortoise through the Student Membership network.