This week Sam Gyimah, the Universities Minister, unveiled a new drive to push vice-chancellors into improving the pastoral care and mental health support offered to students.
He claims that mental health is bigger concern for today’s students than tuition fees, and has hit out at universities which view their role in the narrow terms of academic attainment.
All of which poses an interesting question: why is this issue so prominent on today’s campuses? Is it simply the fact that we are more aware of mental health issues than previous generations, or is the modern university environment more stressful and less supportive than it used to be?
Gyimah points out that, now you have close to 50 per cent of school-leavers going to university there are bound to be more people with “very different needs” in today’s dorms.
That is likely compounded by the fact that this huge population increase has eroded or abolished the sense of tight-knit community which appears to have been part of the traditional university experience. The University of Manchester, my own almer mater, has almost 40,000 students spread across a swath of the city. It’s not hard to see why the traditional campus support structures would struggle to adapt to that.
Making the transition even more jarring is that young people today are tending to stay ‘younger for longer’ – leaving school at 16 is no longer even legal. The transition from sixth form to university is thus even more jarring than it might have been a generation ago, when campus networks were closer-knit and teenagers used to higher degrees of adult responsibility and independence.
Finally, the surge in student numbers makes university a much more competitive proposition than previously. Once, a relatively thin slice of each generation proceeded through higher education to a roughly proportionate number of professional jobs. Today’s students are competing with almost half their peer group, jockeying for position in a jobs market in which degrees are increasingly a requirement for jobs which once went to school leavers.
That last point suggests a deeper, structural problem with the higher education sector, of which the mental health crisis may just be a symptom. For all that Gyimah is right to try to rebuild universities’ pastoral support networks, ‘traditional’ vice-chancellors are not entirely wrong to feel that theirs are institutions with a purpose and they shouldn’t be tasked with covering for weaknesses in other parts of the sector.
Initiatives such as the T Level, and the attendant overhaul of technical education, suggest the Government has accepted the need to provide a broader range of pathways from school to employment, whilst the emphasis on tougher exams is a welcome contrast to previous talk of forcing universities to lower their entry standards (and provide remedial school-level education to under-prepared students as a consequence).
Making sure that young people go to university properly equipped for it is as important as ensuring that universities are equipped to support them when it comes to keeping students happy and healthy. Ministers must be sure to attack the problem from both ends.