A Rise in Vulnerability? Academic Studies, Paid Work and Mental Health

**This is the second of three posts on student experience, debt and austerity in higher education; see post published on October 8th.**

by Anne-Meike Fechter

In the last few years, a slew of reports voiced concerns about a rise of mental health problems among university students, in the UK and elsewhere. While there is debate about finer points—for example, to what extent this rise may be due to increased reporting—there is agreement about the broader trend. Trying to better understand the situation of students in our School of Global Studies and the pressure they face, we therefore included a question in our survey as to how, if at all, they felt that undertaking paid work while studying had an impact on their mental health. There are a few caveats to our results: the people who responded were self-selecting, and may thus harbour concerns about their paid work already. Also, the majority of participants were female students, among whom issues such as depression and anxiety are more common.

meike1 picNevertheless, the answers to our question, ‘have financial pressures affected your mental health during your time at university, and if so in what way’, are illuminating of the challenges students face. Among those who answered ‘yes’, common narratives emerged, as in this case:

‘Extremely. I have never suffered so many mental health problems than being at university. Everything is far too expensive for the loan we are given. All I want to do is get a great grade in my degree so I can get a good job but it’s so stressful to have to spend more time working.’

For some students, there was a clear correlation among acute financial problems and mental health issues:

‘The first time I was ever diagnosed with depression was when I was dealing with loads of stress because of my student loan application. Currently… my job is my only income, therefore I have no choice but to sometimes leave university work unattended just so I could earn enough money to cover all my expenses, which leads to being behind schedule and anxiety about deadlines.

The psychologist Ann Macaskill argues that the ‘cuts in university funding have changed the student experience in ways that may contribute to the problem by removing some of the protective factors’, such as small group teaching and timely access to counselling. The increased financial pressures due to the rise in tuition fees, as well as the abolition of maintenance grants, makes students more vulnerable. This holds especially for those who cannot rely on parental support at all, as for this student:

‘Yes, because I have not and will not ask my parents to fund me while their household income is so low – so I’ll take any and all shifts I can fit in and not let them know how stressed and tired it makes me’.

Similarly, student parents or those with caring responsibilities can face particular pressures;

‘Family finances have been a source of constant pressure. I’ve never been able to ask for financial assistance and have been financially independent from my parent for several years. Recently, however, she lost her job and my student loan + wages now keep us afloat’.

In addition, those with pre-existing mental health conditions often find that these are being exacerbated, partly because there is less time to look after themselves and ‘take time out’.

The combination of financial pressures, academic demands, and increased vulnerability creates the risk of an academic zero-sum game: having to increase their work hours to pay for living costs can seriously undermine students’ ability to do well in their academic work. The aspiration for a financially secure future is undermined by a present need to make ends meet:

‘It makes me very stressed out, because I know that university will hopefully allow me to get into better financial situations, meaning that I need to get a good grade, this is made difficult when I have to work so frequently’ .

MEIKE2 pic

It is useful to bear in mind that some students welcome paid work as a change in pace, and a distraction from university work. As one respondent put it, ‘I enjoy work as it creates a good routine and increases my skills as well as being a financial benefit’. They crucially added, though, that they were also ‘in the fortunate position that I could choose not to work due to parental support but I like working and the independence that brings too’. It is therefore not undertaking paid work as such, but its kind, frequency, and necessity that makes a difference.

From the perspective of academic tutors, it can be frustrating as well as puzzling to witness that at a time when university costs more than ever, some students seem to be struggling to attend; do not complete non-assessed work; and seem to do the minimum of reading and class preparation required. Students’ comments shed some light on the interlocking constraints of academic work, paid work, and mental health which means that some students are unable to achieve to the best of their abilities. This is acutely felt by some, such as this respondent:

‘I understand uni is to come first however I have to do lots of paid work in order for myself to be here and perhaps suggesting extra docs to watch/readings to read is marginalising those that work as I feel so bad and inadequate when I don’t do it but there are physically not enough hours in the day’.

One way of alleviating pressures, one might suggest, is to improve access to on-campus counselling and support facilities. There is some irony in the fact that, partly as a result of the rise in tuition fees, universities are called to draw on some of this income to address problems that were caused by the change in university funding in the first place. On a more grounded level, a shared sentiment expressed by several students was the need for their situation to be acknowledged by tutors:

Many tutors do not realise I work and when explained some can be very un-sympathetic. Some are great and understand… but some completely disregard the fact that you HAVE to work and expect University to be the only thing you focus on which one; isn’t helpful and makes you feel worse and two; probably isn’t realistic’.

Clearly, it would be useful if academic staff remain mindful of these pressures. They do not affect all students, but they impact most negatively on those who are disadvantaged in other ways. Raising awareness, and understanding the constraints involved, is a start: as one student commented, ‘Just thank you for doing this survey. Really thank you. It’s really moving/special/validating to be asked these sorts of questions’.


Anne-Meike Fechter is a Reader in Anthropology in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. With Paul Gilbert and Emilia Roycroft, she established the Global Studies Student Employment Survey, while she was Director of Student Experience at the School of Global Studies


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