Mounting social and academic pressures mean that higher education can be a challenge for any student. A Uni Health study found that 80% of those studying in higher education reported symptoms of stress or anxiety, while one NUS survey found that nine in 10 students experienced stress.
Uncertainty around Brexit and rising living costs mean that many students don’t feel confident about finding a job. Alex, an international relations and politics student at the University of Leicester, says he’s constantly worried about graduate life. “There’s that fear of having to adjust back to life back home. I always think, what sector do I want to work in? How am I going to get work? Is my CV up to scratch?” While his institution offers career guidance, his plans weigh on his mind.
Hannah Morrish, a psychotherapist and the higher education lead at The Student Room, says students are increasingly questioning whether university is worth the cost. “The pressure to be successful and get a lucrative job role after graduation is high. Students worry that it won’t work out and they won’t achieve the success or personal return on investment.” She recommends speaking to student advisers about hardship funding and getting a part-time job. “The majority of universities also offer bursaries, grants and scholarships – and many go unclaimed.”
Leaving the structures of home and family for the first time can often exacerbate mental health problems. A 2019 poll of almost 38,000 UK students found that psychological illnesses are on the rise in higher education institutes, with a third stating they suffer from loneliness. “Spending all day and night studying in the library will certainly help you feel more in control of your personal success,” says Morrish, “but book time in to do things you enjoy with people you like spending time with. Join in with student meets and societies. You don’t have to commit indefinitely, just dip in and out and try new things in order to grow your social circle.”
For many students, a poor work-life balance is a huge contributing factor to mental health issues and stress. Morrish advises sticking to a schedule with space for recreational activities. “Give yourself permission to create a routine which gets the best out of you. Often when we’re feeling the burn we stop doing things that make us feel good, like working out and cooking balanced meals.”
Minority students can experience a different level of isolation. Much has been written about how higher educationcan marginalise black students, with figures from the Office for Students recently reporting that white students are more likely to be awarded first class or upper second class degrees than black students.
Sexism within Stem subjects, meanwhile, has been reported at all levels of academia. Grace Arena, a master’s student in prosthetics and sculpture at Buckinghamshire New University, says she’s picked up on gender biases from her tutors, almost all of whom are male. “I definitely feel there’s a gap in understanding between male tutors and female students and that can be quite difficult. It’s always in the back of your mind that you’re being taught by men, you’re going to be applying for jobs with men, the workshops are run by men ... The prospect of being one of the best in the field, without having females in the industry already to look up to, is really quite hard.”
Rianna Walcott, 24, is a PhD candidate at King’s College London in digital humanities, and co-author of the book The Colour Of Madness. While studying, Walcott co-founded Project Myopia to promote inclusivity and run workshops around the minority experience in academia. “There needs to be more support for students right now – and especially minority students,” she says. “If we want the culture to change, students and staff need to take a stand.”
Stress isn’t only rising among undergraduates. A report commissioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute revealed that staff referrals to counselling and occupational health services have soared over recent years. The culture of academia is unstructured and performance-driven, often lending itself to overwork. For master’s and PhD students who also teach, the lines between work and leisure-time are often blurred.
“Stress is unavoidable because you can’t clock out,” says Walcott. “If you don’t get a grant, you have to be able to support yourself in your PhD. Then there’s a lot of invisible stuff you need to do to become employable; you have to be involved in conferences, teaching, networking. Your responsibilities increase the older you get in academia, but if course you’re still living as a student with not nearly enough to actually live on.”