Puppies and bubble wrap are a great help, but is academic life causing students too much stress?


Students at the University of Leicester have popped their way through 100m of bubble wrap; at the University of Southampton they were treated to a petting zoo; while Nottingham Trent University provided its students with a puppy room. And all in the name of quelling feelings of stress amongst students as they sit their final exams and submit their last pieces of coursework of the academic year.

Although universities in the UK have support networks of counsellors and advisors for students to talk to when they feel distressed, “it’s the quirkier events such as puppy-petting that prove more popular forms of de-stressing,” explains Dan Flatt, president of the student union at Leicester. He continued: “These less traditional forms of stress relief help raise awareness of the other support services within the university and point students in their direction.”

Doubtless students will always feel stress to do well when faced with exams and deadlines, but the 2012 increase in tuition fees – allowing universities to charge up to £9,000 per year of undergraduate study – has led to many students feeling an increase in pressure.

“I’m paying £9,000 a year for my degree in print journalism,” says Zoe Archer, 20, a student at Nottingham Trent University, “and I feel I need to work harder to get the best possible grades, in order to pay back the huge debt I'll be left with.”

Her concern is echoed by Dr Mohammed Munawar, clinical psychologist and principal clinical lead at Insight Healthcare, a not-for-profit organisation which provides primary care, psychological therapy, and counselling services: “In recent years the stress associated with building up large debts though student loans, coupled with the reduction of employment opportunities for graduates in recent years, means the pressure to perform well in exams and to succeed in university education is higher than ever.”

“Studying is more stressful now than it used to be,” agrees Giulio Folino, president of City University's student union – which along with more traditional forms of stress relief had a petting zoo. “Due to higher course fees, many students have to work part-time, and are balancing living costs as well. They have more responsibilities now and are under a lot of pressure.”

These competing responsibilities can also mean that many students are unable to prepare as thoroughly as they would like to for their exams and deadlines. 

Mr Flatt agrees that higher course fees have increased the pressure students feel, and added that exams are perhaps not the best way to assess what a student has learnt: “A lot rests on the few hours of an exam, and in reality some people don’t perform well in exams, they might do better in assessed presentations or work well in groups.” 

Assessment techniques are something that universities (and schools) need to scrutinise. A 2013 survey by the National Union of Students found that 80 percent of students reported feeling stressed, 55 percent experienced anxiety, 50 percent suffered anxiety or sleeping problems, and one in 10 reported feeling suicidal. Exams and deadlines alone are not to blame for these findings, but sustained stress can lead to psychological disorders, and in holding events to help students deal with stress, universities are acknowledging that they are placing their students under inordinate pressure. Rather than helping students cope with stress, universities could invest this time and expenditure ensuring that the situation does not arise in the first place.

“When exams they count for so much and you haven't studied the content since November it’s a huge pressure,” says Jess Boyle, 21, who is sitting her eight final exams in economics at Queen Mary University, London. “Spreading exams across the year would be more beneficial. However, this will depend on your course as people who do a dissertation or have or have a more coursework-focused degree have a higher work load throughout the year.”

Although stress is something we all experience, in 2011 The Royal College of Psychiatrists found that 29 percent of students using universities’ mental health services displayed clinical levels of psychological distress, and between 2007 and 2011 The Officer for National Statistics reported a 50 percent increase in student suicides. The blame for these shocking findings cannot be lain solely at the the feet of stress caused by exams and deadlines as mental health issues are complex and evolve from a variety of factors, however, stress does can be a contributing factor to these, and it is the one factor that universities have direct control over. 

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