From an anonymous academic in The Guardian, 11 May 2018:
Ever since tuition fees rose to £9,000 in 2012, UK universities have seen a fall in real-terms funding. To plug the gap, oversubscribed institutions sought to rapidly expand when the government lifted the student numbers cap. There is startling confirmation of this in recent figures: between 2011 and 2016, Aston University grew by 80%, Coventry University by 53% and Surrey by 50%.
But this is a short-sighted decision that risks growing tensions between the university and its local community and damaging student wellbeing. Universities have more to lose than they are perhaps prepared to accept.
Bristol city council has recently begun conversations about curbing the growth of the city’s two primary universities. University expansion is problematic because councils lose out on tax revenue from student houses, since students don’t pay council tax. And residents resent the developers who buy up the housing stock, pushing out local tenants in favour of students.
Students suffer from unchecked expansion, too, and campuses are struggling to respond to increasing demand for mental health support services. Studies show increasing loneliness and isolation among the UK’s undergraduate population. For me, the words loneliness and isolation capture my recent undergraduate experience more than any others in the English language. It is possible that my overcrowded degree course contributed to these feelings.
n graduation day, I could recall the names of only a handful of people I’d shared seminars with, our relationships only as deep as a two-minute fortnightly conversation as the previous class filtered out of our room. At best I knew the first name of less than a sixth of our year group. And despite the 10 compulsory modules we’d shared, and the exam halls we’d populated together, I couldn’t recall seeing before the faces crossing the stage at graduation. In a swollen cohort it’s easy to feel anonymous.
Relationships with my coursemates were at best cursory, and with my lecturers, distant. When I walked through the corridors of my department and smiled to passing lecturers or former tutors, their glazed expressions indicated that they too were faced by an endless sea of unrecognisable faces.
I was ill during my three years at university, with recurrent bouts of severe depression and generalised anxiety disorder. My attendance dipped, and the anonymity of being one name in tens of thousands made it easy to fall under the radar. Despite missing over half of my seminars, it wasn’t until my final term that a tutor got in touch for the first time to check if things were OK.
I do not blame the tutors who can’t spot struggling students in their classrooms. The increasing volume of students places greater pressure on academics and makes it impossible for them to build meaningful relationships. When my parent’s generation talks about university, many paint it as the days of their lives, and fondly recount trips to the pub with lecturers. Today’s students are more likely to wonder whether their professor could pick them out of a line-up.
University is a challenging time for many students, a period of instability, change and stress in which it’s easy to feel unsupported. This is compounded for students on social sciences or humanities courses, which have few course hours. Students are left bereft of routine or structure, and feel disconnected from the institutions that stamp their degree certificates. University becomes a room you sit in for a couple of hours a week, the remaining hours probably spent cramming alone in a library if you can find a seat, and in your bedroom if you can’t.
With the absence of anything to keep you connected, it is easier for depression to pull you under. You might think that after graduating I would have run a mile from my university, but I’ve gone on to carry out research on the student experience, focusing on mental health and wellbeing. The one thing I’ve learned is that if universities are going to take student mental health seriously, the place to start is by tackling their unchecked growth.