The View From Here

The spectre of the Prozac-grasping, stressed out student has become common in recent decades
Click to follow
I always sense a paradoxical mood of fervency and aimlessness at around this time of year, as the next generation of undergraduates start gathering in the lodge of my college. But despite the fact that this is the last year those embarking on tertiary education will be relatively freed-up from the worries of fees, they may soon encounter the dark side to modern student life. Breakdowns and suicides, not to mention prescriptions for anti-depressants and tranquillisers, cast an alarming and increasingly wide shadow.

Witness for example, a piece on just this topic in the Independent on Sunday a few months ago. Oxford, as it happens, was singled out as a particular, bad example of callously overriding student pressures. Whilst it is not particularly helpful here, to address the issue of student stress from the Oxford perspective entirely, I can at least spare a sentence to redress the balance by avowing that in my experience no one at Oxford trivializes the problems and crises that increasingly seem to blight undergraduate life. Rather, I would point to the array of services lined up to combat the problem, as they must also be, to greater or lesser extents, in other institutions.

In fact, some might feel we have over-done it: a new undergraduate arriving, say in Oxford, might feel almost duty-bound to have a breakdown, in view of the anticipatory defences drawn up on his or her behalf. In the introductory week, a fresher might well encounter their subject tutor, the head of college, the chaplain, two undergraduate `parents' and, as appropriate, the women's officer, all of whom press home their services in anticipation of problems - perhaps also indicating the university counselling service and a student helpline.

But whilst the scenario of the student writing the last-minute essay all night is far from new, the spectre of the Prozac-grasping, stressed out student teetering on the edge, has only become a common one in the last few decades. When I lurched from school to university, I nursed the happy prospect that merely being a graduate would virtually guarantee employment. One therefore considered `alternative' careers or travel, secure in the knowledge that a comfortable office could be attained later if not sooner. But now the student agenda has become a more focused, some say narrow, training for a much-prized job. An obvious stress factor in reading for a degree or diploma, has to be therefore that it is no longer the next stage of one's education, but rather the first step into an voraciously competitive society.

But those of us on the front line of student stress cannot help, unfortunately, by magicking rosier job prospects out of the sky overnight. Now more than ever before, a swelling number of school-leavers are entering higher education, compared to the privileged 5 per cent or so of the 1960s and 1970s. Are we faced with an increasing population of mentally ill students because they cannot cope with the demands of the courses? Are we faced with the ugly choice then of a dumbing-down of courses to accommodate the less able, or to reintroducing draconian demands of academic competence, turning the clock back to an educated elite?

When students first came to me with a personal problem I was initially surprised that the issue had little to do with the sexual relationships, and more to do with their own place in the pecking order. Those who have been the star of their class are now `not as good' as their tutorial partner - a value judgement that remorselessly unravels to the logical conclusion that they are `not good' at studying, and should not be on the course at all.

My own approach is to emphasize that they have learnt a valuable truth of life: just as they have been only too well aware that there are people who are less able than they, so there will always be those who are younger, more mature, stronger, healthier, richer, thinner, sexier and yes, more academically able. So why waste time fretting about other people?

It is our duty as teachers to ensure that students are enrolled on the course that is right for them. After that, in most cases, there is a spectrum of possibilities: you can pass comfortably, scrape through, or excel. Surely we university teachers should be helping each individual find their particular, realistic goal within the spectrum, rather than encourage a rat-race mentality. Helping a young person organize their time, but above all to recognize their own abilities, to make the most of their strengths and come to terms with their weaknesses, is perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of tertiary education, above and beyond the acquisition of facts.

My own suggestion towards combating student stress is therefore neither a relaxation of intellectual rigour, nor an elitist restrictive policy. Rather, we should make clear from day one that they have two, three or four years when they can finally be responsible for their own lives, and within a very broad remit, set their own goals. And if they feel they have stretched their own minds, irrespective of any genius friends, then they are doing well. They have one true rival: themselves a week agon

The writer is Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University.