London Student

Why UCL refuses to support the mental health of students

To University College London (UCL), £340,000 is not a particularly large sum of money. The university’s Provost, Michael Arthur, earns a salary of over £361,000 each year. The operating surplus at the university is around £50 million per year, the overall surplus in the hundreds of millions. The university has also taken out loans totalling £280 million from the European Central Bank and received a grant of £100 million from the government towards a £1.25 billion investment in the university’s estate over the coming ten years – including the £483 million new campus in Stratford.

£340,000, pocket change to the university, is the core demand of the Fund Our Mental Health Services campaign (FOHMS) run by students at UCL. All this would go to increase the per year funding for Student Psychological Services (SPS). Since 2005, the total student population at the university has grown from 17,000 to 40,000, with plans discussed to increase to 60,000 in the future. Funding for the psychological services department, however, has not matched the rise in student numbers. The Heads Up report produced by the Students’ Union found that an immediate £340,000 increase in funding – translating to an additional 6.5 staff members – is necessary to “shorten the waiting list, facilitate follow-up with students for additional support where needed.”

Yet, even £340,000 is an underestimate. A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute noted that there should be one counsellor for every 1358 students. Accordingly, UCL should have 29.5 in total, 10 more than the 6.5 covered by a £340,000 increase in funding.

The student body is starting to ramp up the pressure on management to increase funding for its student mental health services. Despite being a relatively new actor on the university’s campus in Bloomsbury, FOHMS has already disrupted a postgraduate open day in December, stormed the office of the Provost and is showing all the signs of developing into a major campaign. In the face of this pressure, £340,000 would be only a small price to pay for management at the university.

Protesters outside UCL | Photo credit: Shamse Majid

However, it’s not just about funding for mental health services: it’s about rent, costs, expansion, pensions and governance of the university itself. To concede to the demands of the campaign – even where the demands are so low – would be to concede that there is a student mental crisis at the university.

If this is conceded, a second question follows: why is there a student mental health crisis at the university? Here, it should be noted that SPS cannot take preventative action. The provision of this service is organised primarily to assist students in distress at the university: its underfunding is not the cause of the mental health crisis at University College London.

This crisis is bigger than one neglected service at the university – that’s what senior management aren’t willing to accept. The crisis is a reality of existence at UCL in the post-2010 £9,000 plus tuition fee era. The crisis is produced by the same pressures that mean students living in university accommodation pay an average £180 per week, why our lecture theatres, seminar rooms and libraries are overcrowded, why academics are currently opposing a 40% cut to their pensions and why, in the context of all this, UCL is building a second campus to increase student numbers by another 6,000.

For those leading the institution at the very top, who do not come into contact with students on a regular basis, the student merely signifies debt. They execute their tasks with the primary objective of securing as much capital from student debt as possible, this approach materialising in the expansion of the university – exposing it to acute financial risk – in order to increase tuition fee income, cutting staff pensions to decrease expenditure and setting hall rents at over £7,000 per academic year.

For the 40,000 studying at the university today, this translates into an ever more precarious student experience with heightened tensions as we are forced to compete for better grades, a space in the library and for a diminishing fraction of time for attention from their tutors. All of this coalescing into greater pressure on our mental health.

The mental health crisis at UCL – one replicated in higher education across the country – will not be solved simply through the increased funding for SPS. Of course, this would be a start; a short-term plaster to treat some symptoms of a deeper sickness pervading the institution. Nevertheless, the mental health crisis is not a single, atomised concern: it is intrinsically linked to the reality of the university today. The connections between mental health, rents, pension cuts, expansion, financial risk – to name only a few of the issues – must be recognised and acted upon. Those in charge at the university know this, it’s why they are fighting so hard not to acknowledge them.

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Angus O'Brien