Students need advisors, not advertisers

Tuesday 26-01-2016 - 15:11

A sharp increase in the number of deaths and serious harm caused to patients with mental health is being blamed squarely on insufficient funding.

By Shelly Asquith, Vice President Welfare


Today’s Guardian front page makes for grim reading.

It is not often we see mental health making headlines, despite knowing just how much of society - including students - struggle with it. We also know that the strain on our National Health Service is putting a strain on our own college and university’s services.

The demand for counseling services has soared by 132%, due to a cocktail of a health sector crises and the removal of the student numbers cap. Applying a price tag to education has encouraged students to compete like never before, in turn exacerbating mental health problems, especially stress and self-harm. However, investment in services has not matched demand. In fact, the opposite is true. Many institutions have cut back on provision; and in further education, as areas reviews take effect, services are likely to be squeezed even further.

We must seriously consider the crisis in mental health support in the context of marketisation. This is not just a question of the absence of funding, but one of priorities.

While welfare services creek, marketing budgets are up by 22% and estates spending is up 25%. All too often, Principals and Vice Chancellors will invest in advertising and recruitment but never think to prioritise support services. New logos, website redesigns, adverts on the underground and offices abroad to publicise themselves to international ‘prospects’. All the while, welfare support is scaled back or not invested in just as reliance on them grows. Sessions are capped, waiting lists grow and wages for front-line staff are frozen. In many cases, student welfare services have even been privatized and in some cut back entirely. The sector is at tipping point: tuition fees have forced institutions to aggressively market themselves as the very best ‘value for money’. Meanwhile, students’ lifelines are being squeezed to the point of crisis.

We must argue for welfare support not only within society, but within our institutions. We must continue calling on the government to prioritise mental health. This is why I have signed NUS up to the Equality For Mental Health Campaign and taken our research to Parliament in recent weeks.

We must also call on our own sector to do more. Pointing to the blatant disparity between budgets for bursaries and business; for mental health and marketing. Because while management pump money into marketing they are commodifying education; and while they let our welfare services hang on a shoe string they deny us the principle of access for all. Institutions can have as high a target for ‘Widening Participation’ as they like, but if they cannot support those students once they get there, they are failing in their mission.

That is why I will be launching a call for funding at sector conferences on the issue this term, and I want to make sure you are able to feed in your ideas and concerns. If you have five minutes, please fill out this survey.

Today’s report is not just a headline, it is a reality. Unless our colleges and universities want the toll of students included in that figure to rise, they need to stop simply raising awareness of services and start raising budgets. They must get their priorities straight: students need advisers, not advertisers.


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