Why University Students Need Support Now More Than Ever

30/01/2017 13:27
Toby Melville / Reuters

With almost 600,000 people applying to university last year; a slight increase on the previous year, it would be difficult to argue that the demand for higher education is going to subside anytime soon. The increased competition for jobs is just one factor that has contributed to this rise, but it is undoubtedly an important one. Today, most graduate schemes are posted on the basis that an applicant will have an undergraduate degree, with upper second class honours, and so it is only conceivable that people want access to the best opportunities.

One aspect of higher education that is not so widely covered, however, is the growing demand for postgraduate degrees. With so many people now holding undergraduate degrees, it can be argued that the job market is saturated with graduates that are simply carbon copies of one another. Whilst once simply having an undergraduate degree was enough to set you apart from other job applicants, today students find themselves compelled to continue into postgraduate education, just to stay ahead of the game. But if support for students at an undergraduate level is substandard, support for those trying to access postgraduate education is non-existent. If we're to ensure that students can continue gaining access to education, there must first be a serious consideration as to how best we can support those students.

The rising number of students going to university has led some to claim that universities are simply too full, and they might have a point. However, this is not to say that universities are wrongly allowing an overly diverse cohort of young people into their institutions, but rather this increase has ultimately put a severe strain on the support services that universities can offer, such as counselling and careers guidance.

With some Masters degrees costing up to £10,000, undertaking postgraduate study is much more of an initial financial burden than an undergraduate one. Unlike student finance for an undergraduate degree, in which tuition fees are directly paid to an institution, and a maintenance loan is paid to the student, the government provides up to £10,000 which is meant to cover or partly cover tuition fees and living costs. If you want to study journalism in London for example, a Masters degree would set you back between £8,000 to £10,000, leaving you with very little to pay for rent, food or travel.

Therefore, much like with undergraduate degrees, postgraduate education has become accessible mainly to the wealthier amongst us, leaving everyone else to compete for scarce scholarships and grants. The financial worry of applying, bolstered only by an often confusing and stressful application process is where additional support from universities would be vital. But are universities to blame for this lack of support? The answer is yes and no. Universities are notorious for spending money in places where it isn't necessarily needed. The University of Leeds, for example, spent £26 million on a new library in 2015, despite announcing £120,000 worth of cuts to the library budget a little over a year later. Likewise, the University of Edinburgh opted to introduce 'nap pods' to university libraries, each of which costs £10,000. Although the motion was voted for by 53% of students, for a university that often ranks so low in student satisfaction levels, the question remains whether or not money is being placed in the most appropriate places.

On the other hand, the failure of universities to provide adequate mental health support, alongside other services, is equally a consequence of government failure to recognise the growing mental health problems amongst university students. Under David Cameron, the wider mental health situation was dire, and it was particularly so for child and adolescent services. In a rather unprecedented move, current Prime Minister Theresa May has again pledged conservative support for greater investment into, and better recognition of mental health. Much of the rhetoric, however, focused solely on the importance of improvement within schools and the workplace, and fails to consider the problems faced by university students - something which will only continue to grow if the appropriate services remain inadequate. Of course, for a topic that has only recently taken to the forefront of politics, any discussion of mental health is of great importance, but the last seven years of regressive conservative policy in the field doesn't exactly bode well for May's ambitious plans.

Deterring prospective students from going to university is the last thing anyone should want. If young people continue to have ambitions and a drive towards higher education, then it should remain accessible to everyone. The fact remains, however, that competition after graduation will only continue to increase, and students are going to continue to look for ways to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, vital university support systems are failing to catch up with those higher demands, leaving a potentially huge cohort of students without access to the services they need. The responsibility ultimately lies both with universities and the government alike, and the issue should undoubtedly be considered more seriously. May's plans for mental health are important and welcomed, but remain just a drop in the ocean against the true scale of the problem.