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For some a University becomes a dark place: stress, fees, loans and no grants.

A new term is now upon our universities and, amidst the excitement of new students arriving, we should find time to reflect upon mental health and the enormous pressures on students. There is a rising tide of recognition that students are under much greater pressure that ever before. This affects their wellbeing and studying capability.  For some students, a university can become a very dark place. However, universities are now taking the risk of suicide very seriously indeed. One factor is financial stress and there are now calls from various quarters for government to ease the financial pressure on students. Something that can be done if there is a will.

Students are coming under significant stress.

At its annual conference on 5th September, Universities UK (UUK) launched its ‘Guidance for universities on preventing student suicides’ [1]. The detailed document became available on its www site the following week [2]. This comes on the back of earlier advice from UUK on ‘Student mental health: dealing with the transition from school to university’ in August [3] and follows their response to a report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on suicide rates amongst students and young adults [4].

The conference was attended by the Vice Chancellor of Bristol university and the father of Ben Murray, James, who provided a raw and poignant reminder of what can sadly happen without warning [5]. His son was lost to suicide in Bristol earlier this year.

Universities UK have partnered with the charity Papyrus, [6] the UK's main national charity that aims to prevent suicides in young people. Their Annual review for 2018 is a stark reminder of the situation in the UK and it is good that they are now advising universities [6].

At least 95 university students took their own lives in the 2016–17 academic year. However, the Office for National Statistics [7] shows the rate of suicide amongst university students in England and Wales is lower than that of the general population. This is, of course, no consolation to all of those affected. However, the rising number of cases amongst university students is surely a wake-up call for us to realise that something is fundamentally wrong.

Profound effects on staff.

The effects on the university staff involved can be devastating and leave behind many thoughts and unanswered questions forever. The guidance offered by University’s UK is timely and excellent. As a member of staff teaching students for 35 years, I would have welcomed their advice if it were offered many years ago. The experience of not seeing any more a student who you were teaching lives with you for ever. That there might be now some support and recognition of the effects on staff involved is a blessing. The tragic case of Malcolm Anderson, the lecturer from Cardiff who died in February of this year, is a likely case in point and highlights the terrible cost. He was from the Business School in Cardiff University and the inquest reported that he had fallen to his death from the building where he worked six years after a student fell from the same building [8].

The new advice from UUK is excellent and acknowledges the profound effects on staff with: “As well as being devastating for family and friends, suicides at university profoundly affect the student and staff community.”

Recognising the pressures on students.

In relation to students, the recommendation is to: “Train all student-facing staff in suicide awareness, how to spot the signs of distress and what to do when you spot them. Agree how often people need refresher training.”

However, ‘student-facing’ staff? This is a surprising delimitation. Although it recognises that some staff are not ‘student-facing’, it might be better if all staff were included. This should encompass administrative staff and all academic staff even if they are mainly research devoted. For example, a member of staff at a finance office might spot that an academic is affected through their day to day interactions with a student. A research group leader might be interacting with other staff, PhD students and Post-Docs and is in a good position to spot any signs of detachment or worries.

The pressures on students for the first time, upon transition to university from home and school, can be daunting for any young person. It was always the case and having a home background that is offering support is vital. But it is not there for many students and this should be recognised early.

Student Minds is the UK’s student mental health charity that offers sound guidance for students setting on this journey and they should all read the advice documents carefully [9]. However, amidst the advice there is barley a mention of holding down jobs other than encouraging students to factor in income from jobs in any financial planning. Likewise, there is little reference to financial pressure in the UUK advice.

Well hidden in the 32 page UUK guidance [2] there's a single mention of the financial pressures and the pressures of part-time employment. This is a reiteration of an earlier guidance report from 2015 [10] that also advised that some students have to: “balance study with being a parent or carer, or part-time or full-time employment”.
It is stated that “Transition points in life are particularly challenging and often expose people to emotional vulnerability and mental distress”

The obvious dangers of spending too much time in a job at the expense of academic studies is not stressed enough. In several surveys, students identify pressure associated with their studies as a main source of personal stress (see earlier TEFS Blog [11]). This is exacerbated if there is less time to study and complete assignments.

There is plenty of advice around for students seeking to get a job whilst studying and the recent student living index shows that this is commonplace. However, it underestimates the effect on the students by citing overall average hours worked [12]. A good example is advice offered by a much-used student blog [13]. However, this and most others fail to give adequate warning about how this can damage effective study time.

Calls for more financial support for students through means testing.

Yesterday saw calls to introduce means tested fees. This arises from an excellent report on the practice emerging in other jurisdictions around the world [14]. The  accompanying article by Nick Hillman of The Higher Education Policy Institute indicates that there is a rising tide of recognition about student’s financial pressures. This is long overdue but should also consider the re-introduction of means tested maintenance grants whilst still supporting those not getting any family support. The recognition that money and debt are significant in deterring students from Higher Education is a key step forward. The pressure of not having time to complete the work demanded by Universities well, or on time, is surely a key factor in student wellbeing. Add to this isolation and na├»ve decisions by students unsure of what to do to survive makes for a potent mix.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


[1] Universities UK Guidance for universities on preventing student suicides 5 September 2018.


[3] UUK Student mental health: dealing with the transition from school to university
15 August 2018.

[4] ONS New data published on student suicide rates. UUK Response to Statements
26 June 2018.

[5] "Our youngest son Ben took his own life on 5th May 2018. He was 19 and in his first year at university. His death was a shock to all of us. We have a mantra to help manage our devastation: to accept his decision – we will never know the pain or despair in his mind – to celebrate the happy memories, and to learn from his life. We learned that mental distress can be very difficult to detect. Spotting outward signs of vulnerability that point to inner distress, is a challenge for staff, parents and the whole community. Our grief is accompanied by the conviction that had we known his predicament at university, we could have done something and by the determination that we learn from Ben’s death to help prevent others."
James Murray, Father of Ben Murray

[6] Papyrus Annual review 2018.

[7] Office for National Statistics report 2018 Estimating suicide among higher education students, England and Wales: Experimental Statistics.

[8] TEFS Tragedy on Campus – now is the time to act to prevent suicides and mental distress. June 15, 2018.

[9] Student Minds. Starting university.

[10] UUK Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Working Group.
Student mental wellbeing in higher education: good practice guide 13 February 2015.

[11] TEFS Blog June 08, 2018. The student experience in 2018: Higher Education Policy Institute Conference: From Funding to Fining.

[12] Student Living Index 2018. The cost of living at UK universities.
and TEFS Blog September 07, 2018

[13] How to Make Money While At University, Nov 30, 2017 | Student Blog.

[14] Higher Education Policy Institute Report 112. Targeted Tuition Fees: Is means-testing the answer?
and Nick Hillman. Could means-tested fees help poorer students get into university? The Guardian. 20 Sep 2018.


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