The figures don’t lie: students in higher education struggle with stress, loneliness, and depressive and even suicidal thoughts. 51 percent of students in higher education suffer from mental health issues, and 12 percent of them experience severe symptoms, reported the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) in the Mental Health and Substance Use Monitor for Students in Higher Education (2022).
These figures are cause for concern. As such, it is a good thing that universities are talking to staff and students about the causes, and considering what can be done about it. However, this analysis falls short; there is a lack of reflection on the causes.
The annual Student Well-being Week is symptomatic of the university’s reputation as a neoliberal place where, in addition to a degree, students can now also take a yoga course or a workshop on painting linen bags (yes, these workshops were offered during the Student Well-being Week in November 2022).
I was very interested to read the university’s recent newsletter containing the newly drafted Vision on Student Well-being. As I was reading, however, my jaw dropped in astonishment. Students and staff from all faculties contributed to the creation of the document, but not one word was mentioned about the social causes of our collective suffering.
The analysis on the causes of students’ stress is bogged down by time-consuming bureaucracy and unclear communication on the university's part. There is nothing about racism, sexism, validism or other forms of discrimination and exclusion that exacerbate student well-being issues both in society and at our university.
The Vision uses the definition of student well-being laid down by the Universities of the Netherlands, which states that ‘students are able to... cope with the challenges of the study and student period’. As if those challenges are set in stone, and the solution lies with the student. With some help from the university, admittedly. The university is making plans to help students become resilient to stress. Students are encouraged to work on their own resilience in order to be more stress-resistant.
In addition, the university wants to provide sufficient care, and make the process of finding help, for example from the psychological counsellor, student counsellor or possibly a mental health counsellor outside the university, easier and quicker.
This Vision on Student Well-being is part of a range of initiatives that universities have been developing for the past two years or so. In 2021, the National Education Programme (NPO) was born out of a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences. The funds made available through the NPO were intended for universities to invest in student well-being, in addition to investments in solving delays in studies and research due to Covid-19.
And so Leiden University organised a Student Well-being Week for the first time in November 2021, which was repeated in 2022. During these weeks, students could attend all kinds of workshops to ‘stay physically and mentally healthy’. Let’s just take a quick yoga course to unwind - that’ll give productivity a nice boost! It is telling of the neoliberal era we find ourselves in.
The focus on student resilience in the Vision on Student Well-being also reflects the spirit of our times.
Resilience is a buzzword that appeals to the prevailing neoliberal ethos of individual responsibility and malleability: so you have a problem with stress? The university is willing to provide you with tools so you can work on this yourself. That is how you become resilient; that is to say, you will be able to absorb the shocks of the system, instead of being crushed by them.
I won’t deny that it’s also important to learn to cope with the challenges of our society, but the total lack of focus on questioning the status quo infuriates me. Yoga courses, tote bag painting and a comfort food cooking workshop are like small plasters on a gaping wound.
IN THE STUDENTS’ COURT
Instead of obediently doing our job and trying to unwind during a workshop only to be more resilient in our fight against the daily hustle and bustle, we should ask ourselves why we are in such a hurry in the first place, and whether this is what we want.
The Vision ends with the universities’ duty of care, which states that they ‘are responsible for offering counselling and support to students who need it in order to successfully start, participate in and complete a study programme in the Dutch higher education system’. The university does not fulfil this duty through a Student Well-being Week, because by organising workshops, it puts the ball back into the individual student’s court. The duty of care requires introspection from universities if they are to avoid being blamed for their students’ ill-being.
Why doesn’t the university set itself the goal of critically looking at our society in its Vision? Especially in the fields of humanities and social and behavioural sciences, there should be room for an analysis of the structures, norms and systems that cause large-scale mental malaise. The university is a place for critical reflection: what kind of society do we want to live in, and how are we going to create it together?
Such questions inevitably lead to contention; it’s unlikely that we’ll all agree on its interpretation, after all. But this debate is important to be able to move forward together, and will do more to lift our spirits than a one-off workshop.
Loes Oudenhuijsen is a PhD candidate at the African Studies Centre