‘Follow the money’ - the real reason for the health crisis in our universities

4 min read

By Lucy Griffiths, CEO at Sortyourfuture.com.

A health crisis is brewing in our universities, and it’s probably not the one you are thinking of. While COVID-19 may be part of the cause, I’m talking about a mental health crisis that may far outweigh the effects of COVID on the young people of this nation. Parents up and down the country will be worrying this weekend, unable to do anything from a distance and with travel restrictions in place while their children are isolated in tiny rooms, exits guarded, and with little access to social contact of any kind.

This week I have read with horror, stories of individual students struggling in solitary confinement in their costly student halls. I’ve spoken to parents who are distraught, who have been receiving tearful calls from their children, but whose hands are tied because the University is telling them students have to isolate themselves, and that, as their child is, in the eyes of the law, an adult, they have no way of intervening. I’ve read distressed tweets about young people with pre-existing mental health conditions whose basic needs are not being met. And I’ve spoken to beleaguered university staff members who are trying to do their very best for their students despite the horrorshow that is unfolding around them. 

The first year at university is extremely difficult for many students, even under normal circumstances, but this year, the year when they have already endured stress after stress, please don’t be surprised if many of them hit breaking point.

In fact, no one should be surprised about this. Universities know about the student mental health crisis that existed before COVID. This is not new. But this year, there appears to have been, at best, a national negligence when it comes to the entirely predictable problem that is unfolding, and at worst a willful choice to put young people at risk for the sake of economic gain.

And that’s the crux of it. When I ask myself why this is happening when the risks are well known, the words that immediately pop into my head are - ‘follow the money’. Who had something to lose if students did not return to university? And who had something to gain? Students are a powerful economic force, and our Higher Education system is driven by money now more than ever. So who loses when students don’t return to their University cities? We need to look beyond the small business owners and individual landlords who will undoubtedly lose but who are not to blame here, and look up the chain.

Privately funded University campuses and accommodation blocks are big business these days, hundreds of new blocks have sprung up all over the UK over the last few years alone, many owned by complex holding companies registered overseas that do not pay tax in the UK. And new student accommodation blocks count towards local authority house building targets creating an incentive to approve new developments. So, empty student accommodation loses money, for investors, for universities, and for local economies. I’ll let you figure out the rest...

When you marketise a nation’s education system you create drivers and incentives in the system that may encourage unethical behaviour, and sometimes, as in this case, actions that are downright dangerous to life. And please don’t misunderstand me, there is real danger to life here. The kinds of mental health conditions young people may be susceptible to in these circumstances are highly dangerous to life. I should know, I had one of them, and I’ve worked with many many students who were experiencing severe mental health problems during my career in Higher Education. 

I personally had a terrible experience at university and developed severe anorexia nervosa, one of the deadliest of all mental illnesses. I know what it’s like to be unable to help yourself in those circumstances, and even though you may technically be an adult, you may still need someone to care for you, to advocate for you, to be on your side. 

Later, when I worked as a Lecturer, I was the year tutor for hundreds of first year students and I saw their distress on a daily basis. Lecturers are on the front line, often the first port of call for struggling students, and I know there are lecturers out there who are trying to play this role at the moment. I feel for you. Because how much more difficult is it to be there for a student who you have never met face to face, who can’t drop in to see you during your office hours and have a cup of tea, who can’t hang back after class to ask for help?

The truth is, I am disgusted that this has been allowed to happen. I’m going to repeat that this was completely preventable. If proper consultation and listening had taken place before deciding to bring students back to university in September (see the UCU and NUS calls for a different approach) we might not have ended up here. Politicians and university leaders need to step up now to address this before it affects the longer term futures of thousands of students - and before it has the opposite economic effect to the one they had hoped for. It’s time to do the right thing by those in your charge, not just those who stand to benefit financially from the student economy. 

If you need help right now

If you’re at university and you’re struggling please reach out for help. There is a list of organisations you can contact here.

The link between mental health and education

If you’re interested in the link between education and mental health my TEDx talk gives some background on my personal experience and my thoughts on how we can tackle some of the systemic problems in education.

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