Tuition fees 'have led to surge in students seeking counselling'

Campaigners say financial worries are partly to blame for rise in students accessing mental health services

A surge in the number of students at top universities using mental health services is due in part to the hike in tuition fees to £9,000, campaigners have said, adding that financial stress is linked to anxiety and depression.

More than 43,000 students had counselling at Russell Group institutions in the academic year 2014-15, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, compared to 34,000 only three years earlier.

The 28% jump in university students seeking counselling coincides with the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000, the mental health charity Mind pointed out.

But the rate of increase varied dramatically between institutions, suggesting other environmental factors may also have contributed to the rise.

At the University of Edinburgh between 2011-12 and 2014-15 there was a 75% jump in students accessing counselling services. The figure was not broken down to show the difference between Scottish students and other UK students who pay the full £9,000.

Cardiff University saw a 72% rise over the same period, while there was a 57% increase at the University of Leeds and 43% at the University of Oxford.

Stephen Buckley, from Mind, said tuition fee and student loan debt were major contributors to the rise in students seeking mental health help. Commenting on the findings, he said: “Today’s students face an unprecedented financial burden with student loan and tuition fee debt higher than ever before.”

“On the other side of this is the financial stress and uncertainty around employment on graduation,” Buckley said, adding: “Both of these are major contributors to mental health problems like anxiety and depression.”

It was unlikely that the rise simply reflected greater openness around mental health, he said.

Across the UK, more than 1.85 million people accessed specialist mental health services for adults in 2014-15, figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show. In the previous year, more than 1.7 million adults accessed such services. Three quarters of people with mental health problems, however, receive no support at all, according to NHS England.

The National Union of Students (NUS), an umbrella group of UK student unions, urged universities to take the latest findings seriously. Shelly Asquith, NUS vice-president for welfare, said in a statement: “The evidence is clear. The marketisation of education is having a huge impact on students’ mental health.

“The value of education has moved away from societal value to ‘value for money’ and the emphasis on students competing against each other is causing isolation, stress and anxiety,.”

Asquith added: “It has also forced institutions to compete aggressively against each other and put more money into advertising initiatives than student support services. The NUS is urging the sector to take these statistics seriously, and consider an urgent review of the level of funding given to mental health services, particularly counselling.”

The most commonly cited reason for attending counselling was anxiety, according to the available data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. More than 6,000 students were reported to have anxiety, but many universities were unable to provide a breakdown of the problems presented at counselling sessions.

Student numbers increased at Russell Group universities by just 3% over this period.

The clinical psychologist Dr Thomas Richardson, who has studied the link between mental health and tuition fees, said the figures were a cause for concern. He said: “Research has shown that financial difficulties such as being unable to pay the bills has an impact on mental health in students.

“There is also some evidence of a vicious cycle whereby financial difficulties exacerbate mental health problems, and these mental health difficulties can then make managing a budget harder still.”

However, he cautioned that the rise may not be a direct impact of the hike in tuition fees but could reflect a wider issue with students struggling with their finances.

Of the 24 institutions asked, only the University of Southampton recorded a decline in students accessing counselling services. It attributed the drop to the introduction of triage and an improved drop-in service.

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents leading UK universities, said: “Student welfare is an absolute priority for Russell Group universities, which is why counselling services are well-publicised and widely available.”

She added: “Our members invest heavily in pastoral services so students are able to access the support they need. These can range from drop-in surgeries and advice centres to Nightline services and professional counselling.

“The widespread availability of these services means that many of those who may be in difficulty are able to seek out help quickly.”

Yet the number of students experiencing mental health issues may be much higher than those reported to be receiving counselling. Almost eight out of 10 students (78%) said they had experienced mental health issues in the last year, according to a survey by the NUS last winter.


Aisha Gani

The GuardianTramp

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