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There has been a great deal of discussion in the media around the levels of mental health within the student population. We have seen, within our own institution, a steady rise, year on year, of those students who are coming forward and seeking advice and counselling. It is putting an incredible strain on our welfare systems and, when I talk to Head Teachers from the local secondary schools and further education colleges then I am told that what we are seeing is only the tip of the ice berg, there is what one Head described as a tsunami of issues coming our way in the next few years.
There are many explanations of what is happening. Some say that this is a response to social media, a lack of direct personal contact between young people, the developing of social bubbles, the exposure to a constant stream of comment, comparison and criticism, a response to ‘like’ culture and the need to be ‘liked’. Others look to parents, the constant sense of threat to young people, a growing need to protect young people from the perceived dangers of modern society, or perhaps a response to the kind of informal, close and friendship-based relationship between parents and children, a lack of discipline and control. Others again blame schools, the spoon feeding of knowledge, teaching to exams, the stress that young people feel, from a very early age, to perform in order to raise the league table positions of their schools.
Whatever the source, the reality is obvious from all the statistics. The number of students approaching welfare services, doctors, counselors and other professionals is undoubtedly rising fast and this reflects real issues, not just a generation of those who cannot cope with the pressures of the real world.
It is arguable that all the other issues that I have raised over the last few days in terms of marketization, growth in digital technology, concerns around job prospects in and ever changing world, and so on, contribute to this growing issue of mental stress and insecurity among students. It is perhaps this area of student welfare that is going to be the most pressing problem that all higher education institutions will face in the next few years.
This is not directly related to learning and teaching, but we would be foolish to believe that that there is no connection. It will be much more difficult for all of us to engage in traditional approaches to learning and teaching if those who are engaging with us are finding it increasingly difficult to cope. There have to be changes, and changes at a very fundamental level.
Many universities, for example, are already looking, as we are, at programmes to encourage resilience, mindfulness, peer support and many other processes in order to support their students. A few are even asking whether we need to change, fundamentally, our ideas about what a University is, and the expectation we put on students through the process of doing a degree. That is something that, I believe, we have to take seriously, and something that has driven our thinking, here in Swansea, about how the curriculum and related issues should be developed into the future.