By Tyrone Falls, Bristol Staff-Student Solidarity Group

CW: mention of suicides

One of the most tragic development in universities in the last ten years is the rapid increase in students as well as staff seeking mental health support. The number of students seeking mental health support has more than doubled, whilst drop out levels and suicide rates amongst students are at record highs in many institutions. Meanwhile, the majority of staff in HE work more than 50-hour weeks and, as a recent Labour Force Survey showed, stress accounts for more than 40% of work-related ill health cases.

Of course, every individual case is different and down to a complex of factors. However, a significant factor that cannot be ignored is the role that market reforms have played. “Marketisation” is the name given for the overall set of policies, processes and the interaction of institutions with these changes that result in institutions competing for funds rather than receiving stable and direct funding. The result of this process in the context of mental health is the prioritisation of increasing financial intake and cutting costs over and above the wellbeing of students and workers.

The material and psychological effects of marketisation go further than cuts to pay and increases in debt. There are less obvious but very significant ways in which marketisation impacts on us. Firstly, there is the rise in student numbers coupled with an insufficient increase in space. Universities, in particular Russell Group universities, have increased student numbers in some cases by more than 25% in the last ten years but failed to sufficiently increase the study and living spaces for students. Secondly, the insufficient rise in teaching and support staff. Marketisation drives institutions to have bigger classes whilst keeping staff to a minimum and/or hiring more staff but on insufficient pay and conditions. Finally, these poor ratios are also present in student-counsellor ratios. The Higher Education Policy Institute recommends a student-counsellor ratio of 1:1358. However, the average ration currently stands at 1:5000.  All of these conditions mean that students feel more isolated and are , in act, less able to turn to help if they need it.

A further factor impacting student and staff mental health is the rising cost of living. This is not only due to student maintenance not keeping up with costs and the current housing crisis, but also universities themselves hiking rent in halls. As it stands, average rent in university halls is around £131 per week. As is explained elsewhere these rent hikes are due to universities’ drive to expand and compete as higher rent intakes help universities to back loans from the private sector in order to finance these expansion projects.

Whilst it is important to criticise and call for improvements in counselling services within universities and the NHS, the current mental health crisis has economic roots that cannot be remedied by simply employing more counsellors. If we want to fight the mental health crisis we need to repeal marketisation policy and replace our education funding system with one that ensures education is free and directly funded by government, and that all universities are well-funded and well-resourced.

This is an opinion piece written by Tyrone Falls, Bristol Staff-Student Solidarity Group. Agree? Disagree? Write a response! Email