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.