Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Last updated: 6 days ago

Katic: Commodified education behind campus mental health crisis

Photo Mab Coates-Davies/The Ubyssey

Photo Mab Coates-Davies/The Ubyssey

Everywhere I turn, people are having solemn conversations about the mental health crisis on university campuses. However, nobody seems willing to have an honest conversation about its true causes. It all comes back to capitalism, I’m afraid. By commodifying higher education and reducing it to a mere competition for grades, we have created an unhealthy environment where mental wellbeing and meaningful learning have no place.

In fairness, there have been a handful of sensible reforms proposed by universities and student societies. The AMS has advocated for a database of old exams and mid-term evaluations of teaching; it has also proposed creating a hub to experiment with new testing methods.

At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in response to a spate of student suicides, the administration commissioned a large report with many recommendations. It prescribed a number of meaningful preventative measures, including better scheduling of exams, clearer course design and description, coordination and timing between classes, longer orientation periods and preparatory programs.

However, I am not at all convinced that any of these will do much to address the issue. Is it enough to simply moderate some of the more demanding elements of higher education?

Better scheduling of exams may lighten the burden, but it certainly would not make UBC a fundamentally healthy place to be. If you are ruining your physical and emotional wellbeing for the sake of achieving the grade, how would these reforms convince you to work any less hard?

Before you even enter the conveyer belt of university, you are pressured to have the best of grades so that you might be so lucky as to be accepted into a place like UBC. Then, you sit in an impersonal lecture hall where the only way to distinguish yourself is to keep getting those grades. But you are disillusioned by the whole experience, so you instead turn to other things, perhaps even drugs and alcohol.

Eventually, you come to the realization that you might actually need a graduate degree to achieve success in the real world. But your average is below where it should be, so you have to push yourself to study even harder. Then, you are surprised to find that some of the ideas in your textbook are actually pretty fascinating. You’d like to take a moment to reflect on what you have been studying, but there is no time to do anything but continue studying. Overworked, you become alienated from your own education, and it depresses you. In this state of mind, you find it even harder to study, so you fall further behind. Then, you fail an exam. Suddenly, it feels like you’re falling apart; it feels completely hopeless.

Sound like a familiar story? It is the story of many UBC students. We are the first generation that has been told we could do anything, but the first in a long time who will likely be worse off than their parents. At one time, we might have chosen a stable, high-paying union job, but those have all but vanished. University seems like all there is. However, our fledgling economy and our aging demographics have caused the government to shift funds away from post-secondary education and into things like healthcare. As a result, tuition and debt has skyrocketed, while family incomes have stagnated.

You hear stories of the under-employed barista and the unpaid intern, struggling out of school. What can you do but work harder? Perhaps if you distinguish yourself, you won’t fall victim to the same fate. There are some generous scholarships, resumé-padding involvement opportunities and this impressive program at Yale. That will make it all OK, right? All you have to do is stay up later, take stronger study drugs and spend less time doing the things that make you happy.

Do you really think better scheduling, an exam database and an orientation program can do much to help this situation? I am glad that people have noticed the mental health crisis on university campuses, but I am afraid that the solutions are a little more complicated than they are willing to admit.

  • Stephen Toope

    “It all comes back to capitalism, I’m afraid.”

    Nothing you just wrote has anything remotely to do with capitalism. The Gaokao in China and State Examinations in the Soviet Union suffer/suffered from exactly the same problems (if not worse).

    • http://twitter.com/gord_katic Gordon Katic

      I did write that more students are feeling the pressure to go to graduate school, I did write that more students are seeing recent graduates unemployed/underemployed, I did write that stable working class jobs are vanishing, I did write that we might end up being worse off than our parents (there’s a lot of research to suggest that will be the case), and I did write that family incomes are shrinking and the provincial government is shifting resources into other entitlement programs. This is stuff that is really beyond the scope of what the university is capable of addressing; it has everything to do with capitalism.

      I am sure that students in Communist countries are pressured to achieve top marks, but that will not provide much comfort to Canadian students.

      • Stephen Toope

        Once again, none of these problems are even remotely exclusive to ‘capitalism.’ Unless you argue that general economic malaise can only be blamed on capitalism, in which case it can become an explanation for everything (and nothing).

        This is so Typical Campus Marxist it hurts.

  • Random

    Please then Katic, explain to us what the solution is?

    • http://twitter.com/gord_katic Gordon Katic

      Well, I’m not sure. That’s not really something I can answer in 600 words. My point was to say that there are these broad trends that impact the amount of pressure that students feel for their grades (from parents, from themselves, etc). The proposed reforms, as sensible as they might be, will not do much to combat those trends.

      Ultimately, I think the solution is to have new pedagogical methods that privilege discussion, collaboration, experiential learning, and a whole host of other things that put less pressure on the student. If we truly privileged learning, we would never reach this unhealthy level of stress; that’s just anathema to learning. But because we privilege efficiency (at least in the early years), we end up with big lecture halls and scantron sheets. In this environment, it’s all about grades.

      For this shift to happen, some of the economic pressures must be let off students. They need to feel comfortable enough to take their time and explore subjects in new ways. And some of the economic pressures need to be taken off of universities, too. If their budget woes continue, how could they possibly be expected to reduce class sizes, and dabble with new technologies/new pedagogical methods that may not be as efficient as the tried and true midterm/essay/final model.

      The first step towards that is for the provincial government to reinvest in post-secondary education, and bring the costs down dramatically.

  • Azhar Khan

    I don’t really see how capitalism is at fault. If anything it’s telling us many of us shouldn’t be here at an overcrowded university and instead be taking one of the many other paths there are for post-high school.

    • http://twitter.com/gord_katic Gordon Katic

      The problem is that those paths don’t really exist anymore (see: the deindustrialization of our economy, e.g. capitalism at work, shifting jobs overseas and concentrating wealth with the 1%). The income gap between high school grads and university grads has never been as wide. More than ever, you have to go to university to make something of yourself.

      Small liberal arts schools sound great, but they tend to be rather unaffordable for most people.

  • Young UBC Alum

    Grades, a commodified education, etc. are only a fraction of the story. The deeper underlying question you should be asking of yourself and other students is, why are you here? If the answer is to get a degree, unless you’re going to be a life long academic, you should probably consider plan B or hope you have a trust fund waiting for you at the other end. The reality is that most of the ‘knowledge’ shared in classes can be learned on your own – at least it won’t be long before it can be (i.e. MOOCs). University should be about people and character development – did you come out the other side a better, more adaptable person?

    Unless you have a relatively predetermined path (i.e. Dentisty, Medicine, Law, etc.) or even if you’re in one of the coveted business school or engineering programs, most entry level jobs are exactly that – entry level work such as bitch work, pushing papers, grabbing coffee for your boss, working ridiculous hours for little pay, etc. You can’t change this fact and complaining or getting upset or feel bad about it will not help you.

    The powerful discovery I made along with many other successful young alumni is to learn to love to learn and if you can’t do it at your job, do it in your free time. Jobs are going to be constantly changing at an increasing rate, so you have to be able to adapt. Yes it may take a coffee or serving job on the side to pay the bills, or an unpaid internship to get the experience you need, but that’s just a reality you have to accept unless you want to be an entrepreneur and create your own opportunities (this is hard and I would not recommend it to everyone although it’s worth the attempt at some point in your life)

    My advice to any student is, don’t be afraid to fail, take a deep breath – this is not the end of the world, go explore what people are doing in the ‘real world’ – ask someone out for coffee that you think is cool and pick their brains, take a semester or two off and explore – you know way less than you think and your mind has been confined to the classroom environment for too long, and figure out what it is you’re working towards – make sure you set realistic expectations otherwise you’ll be disappointed no matter how well you do.

    Even if you can’t find ‘the answer’ I’m sure you’ll have a better understanding of yourself, and be able to ask better questions to help you get wherever it is you’re going.

    Almost forgot – be awesome and invest in relationships. Have fun too – your responsibilities in life only go up after University. YOLO.

  • UBC Undergrad

    This article definitely has some valid points. I have been there, and I have survived and now I’m thriving. Repriortizing is key. I exercise everyday, eat impeccably healthily, socialize, study and still manage to get out. You have to cater your schedule to you. The responsibility falls on you. You are not a victim, you have chosen to be here. Honestly, so many students spend too much time and money drinking. And then, another half spend too much time online. I don’t watch television, I limit my amount unproductive time online, and I socialize with healthy people. It is an incredible OPPORTUNITY and PRIVILEGE to go to school. Let’s get some perspective on the fact that we are not starving children in the third world. The ability to learn all day is something we must be grateful for. Complaining about school when you live on a stunning campus like this, in the middle of one of the greatest cities in the world is not something I sympathize with. I had a mental health issue of anxiety- it was not the university’s job to save me. However, the AMS insurance covered $365 of counselling: exactly what I needed to get back to contentment and back on track. The resources are out there, the possibilities endless- you just need to take responsibility for your mental health and act accordingly. Sleep is also necessary. If you find you have no time to do what you love, perhaps you’re not studying the right content. I love what I’m studying. Wellbeing and meaningful learning has a plays role in my university experience. It’s what you make of it. I hope you conquer your fears, attain your dreams, and end up doing what you love. You can do it. I believe in you. It is possible.

  • Maison

    How you manage to correlate mental stress in university with capitalism is absolutely mind-blowing. Capitalism is an economic system: goods are traded on a *voluntary* basis; competition is key in the betterment and innovation of every-day products. The problem is not capitalism–university has always been hard and it will continue to be. Your tasteless jab at the “disappearance of highly-paid union jobs” (because of capitalism, right? that’s what you’re getting at?) is also quite puzzling as there is plenty of work in the trades for those who aren’t suited for university. Unions no longer leer and dominate the workplace (for good reason), but jobs in construction are still there. Problems arise when students take out thousands of dollars in student debt to get a degree in Genders Studies or Psychology and expect lucrative work off the bat. That is unrealistic. There is no demand for workers that have degrees in Genders Studies. Some people just aren’t in it for the money and that’s okay. My advice to those of you that are struggling to keep up: take a breath, re-evaluate why you’re here at university (to please yourself…or your parents?), and take action accordingly. There are plenty of clinics and counselors available to help you.