Treating students as basket cases

University services aimed at boosting students' wellbeing are eroding personal autonomy.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

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Do you feel stressed about an approaching essay deadline? Do you feel anxious about your exams? Are you happy being a student? Are you enjoying your time at university?

Whatever students’ answers to these questions may be, their university’s wellbeing service is there to offer them guidance and support. Manchester University’s student wellbeing officer aims to ‘promote students to be happy and healthy at university’. At the University of Derby, the student wellbeing service aims to ‘ensure you are feeling safe and well throughout your course of study’. The student wellbeing officer at Arts University Bournemouth can be contacted by ‘any of our students… to discuss any concerns or worries’.

Student wellbeing services have proliferated in UK universities in recent years. At some institutions they have replaced student-welfare officers, presumably no longer content at having their role restricted to such mundane practicalities as housing and debt. At other universities they have emerged from the combining of counselling and disability support services, in a single stroke increasing their remit from under 10 per cent of the student population to everyone on campus. The wellbeing team at the University of Leeds offers support to ‘not just students but every member of the university community’. The accompanying image on the team’s website shows a middle-aged white male. Universities, always keen to show their commitment to equality and diversity, rarely use such pictures, but the point is clear: everyone (including those who look like they can cope) is in need of support from the wellbeing team.

The exact role of a university’s wellbeing service is as vague as it is all-encompassing. The National Union of Students Scotland report, Silently Stressed: A Survey Into Student Mental Wellbeing, begins with the bold claim that ‘the general perception of student life being a carefree, social and relaxed time of life is hugely misguided’. It continues:

‘[T]he pressures on a students’ [sic] mental wellbeing are many and substantial. We already know that 1 in 4 people will suffer from mental ill health at some point in their lives and this applies to the student community too. That is over 160,000 students in Scotland. However, we can make education more accessible to those with mental ill health and, by recognising the issues students face, can perhaps prevent stress or worry becoming a longer term mental-health diagnosis.’

In the space of two sentences we move from students not necessarily being carefree and relaxed, to them having full-blown mental-health problems. An equally alarming conflation takes place with the statistics. We’re told one in four people in the entire population will suffer from mental-health problems at some point in their lives. Of course, no definition of ‘mental ill health’ is offered, and when they apply these statistics to the student population, they somehow come out with a figure over 160,000; the entire student population of Scotland. According to this report, student life is so uniquely stressful that you’re almost certain to be in need of having your head checked out at some point during your studies.

How do student wellbeing officers cope with such a huge potential need for their services and such a vast remit? Well, at the University of Surrey’s Centre for Wellbeing, they ‘promote and develop the awareness of good emotional, psychological and physical health and… highlight the importance of these aspects of all our lives’.

The focus on ‘promoting awareness’ is typical of services on offer at other institutions. In practice this means websites, poster campaigns and regular workshops such as those offered by the University of Edinburgh on ‘How to deal with stress and anxiety’ and ‘Promoting a positive approach to work and university life’.

Such awareness-raising risks pathologising normal emotional states. Few people positively relish the prospect of exams, but for many students feeling stressed is what drives them on to actually do some work. Few people are entirely happy and content throughout their time at university; becoming a student often coincides with leaving home for the first time, forming (and ending) relationships, and beginning to determine what you want to do with the rest of your life. These are all necessary parts of growing up, and few will experience them as states of calm contentment. Nevertheless, problematising normal emotional responses to being a student promotes a sense of individual vulnerability and suggests people cannot be expected to deal with upset or stress alone or with friends. Instead, they must seek professional support at every turn.

In their efforts to raise awareness of how stressful university life can be for all students, wellbeing services create a real problem. The very small number of students who do have serious mental-health issues, for example debilitating depression, now find themselves competing for much-needed support alongside thousands of others who have been told they cannot be expected to cope with the ups and downs of student life.

What lies behind student wellbeing services is an infantilised view of students and a correspondingly paternalistic assumption that students cannot be expected to look after their own best interests. Prior to the lowering of the legal age of majority in 1970, universities formally held in loco parentis responsibilities towards their students. This is no longer the case today, as students have the status of independent adults from the age of 18. Nevertheless, the relentless promotion of wellbeing on campus robs students of the capacity to grow up, to learn how to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life, and to take responsibility for themselves.

This nannying trend isn’t just limited to universities themselves. The NHS guide to student wellbeing and health carries the logo ‘Your Health, Your Choices’. The disingenuous nature of this slogan is revealed by the alarmist listing of every possible health risk you could potentially face as a student, alongside statements such as ‘Students are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol and take drugs. Find out why and how to resist temptation.’ This sends out the mixed message that, while students are free to make their own choices, they must do so knowing that anything other than the NHS-approved option is likely to lead to eternal damnation (or at least serious ill health). As the inclusion of instructions for ‘how to resist temptation’ reveals, this is not really much of a choice at all. The infantilising tone of this health message is encapsulated in this statement from the University of Derby’s wellbeing service:

‘Did you know that your brain burns up one-fifth of the calories that you use? When you are a student you are asking your mind to do a lot of demanding things at once. Just as an athlete has to look after their whole body to get the best performance, so too students have to look after their total wellbeing to get the best academic performance.’

The implication here is that if students want to be academically successful they need to be constantly vigilant to threats to their wellbeing. This means making the ‘correct’ choice to spurn drink, drugs and cigarettes.

The desperate attempts by university wellbeing services to persuade students that some lifestyle choices are better than others indicates a begrudging recognition that students do have choices to make. But this is not always the case. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) provides a definition of wellbeing which is used by the University of Surrey on its Centre for Wellbeing website. The NEF claims that ‘there is a mass of evidence suggesting people choose things which reduce their wellbeing – for example to commute long distances’. It goes on to pose the question: ‘What replaces choice as an indicator of what makes life worthwhile?’ The only conclusion to draw from this, the NEF seems to suggest, is that students should not be given choices to make regarding their own lifestyle. Instead, universities (presumably the wellbeing services) should make decisions on behalf of students that are considered to be in their best interests.

When universities had formal in loco parentis responsibilities, determined students would always devise ways of asserting their independence and exercising their emerging sense of autonomy by rebelling against the clearly defined rules, such as single-sex accommodation and curfews. Today, we have a return to in loco parentis in all but the law. Only now, having been made acutely aware of both their own vulnerability and fallibility in face of the weighty decisions to be made, students will no doubt find it more difficult to challenge the paternalism of the wellbeing officers.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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