University life

There was an interesting  synchronicity to my spending the day on Wednesday of last week (National Mental Health Awareness Day) at Bristol University at a meeting of the HMC/GSA Universities Committee.   Undergraduate mental health was right at the top of our agenda, on the back of research which showed that  the suicide rate among UK students has risen by 56% in the ten years to 2016 and a recent report that there were 95 suicides in English universities in the twelve months to July 2017.

These worrying statistics have given rise to calls among some educationalists to redefine the start of full adulthood in the UK from 18 to 21, thereby giving parents a greater say in the lives of their children through higher education.  In practice, some moves in this direction are already being seen ‘on the ground.’  Bristol, which has faced adverse press coverage in the recent past on this topic, now invites students to opt into a system, which allows the university to initiate contact with parents if there are concerns about a student’s mental well-being.

The proposal to change radically the definition of adulthood has to be seen in the context of a much larger and very confusing picture.  Just think of the many anomalies in the status quo.  On the one hand, the law has relatively little to say, for example, concerning the corrosive effects of permissive immersion in social media among children far younger than 18.  On the other, 18-year-olds are sent to fight (and possibly die) for their country and, if employed, are made to pay taxes.  A broader public debate on the correct thresholds between childhood, adolescence and adulthood is greatly overdue.

In the meantime, as the Universities Committee recognised, schools play a very large part in preventing crises developing when students go to university, both in the application process itself and in the broader guidance offered.  Prompted by the debates held around that table in Bristol, I offer here a few reflections on what we do at the High School to prepare our students for university life.

First and foremost, we offer tailored application advice and this is essential to ensure that students end up on the right course at the right place for them.   Bristol’s Pro-Vice Chancellor observed how often, in her experience, mental health problems occurred when students were there ‘for the wrong reasons.’  Knowing our students really well is key to this and negotiating the labyrinth of choices is best done with teachers and tutors who know the girls, have seen where they have come from and understand their capabilities and interests.

Besides this, helping students develop a versatile toolkit to help them cope with the pressures and setbacks of university life is a vital ingredient in an excellent Sixth Form programme.  In reality, at the High School, it begins long before Y12 and has many dimensions to it, ranging from the personal and psychological to the purely practical, via the social and sexual:

– gaining self-knowledge through tutorial, coaching and mentoring programmes

– learning how to make good decisions when making important choices

– mastering basic cooking and budgeting skills

– practising networking in a social gathering

– understanding the laws about consent and coercion

– building the confidence to negotiate ambiguous or potentially threatening social situations.

Finally, the emotional element is huge.  And this, above all, is about managing expectations.  Experience has taught me, for example, to avoid telling students that my university days were the best of my life.  Not because they were not (they were not) – but because I have come to think that it is unhelpful to them.  Hearing this from the adults in their life puts a terrific pressure on them to find university life wonderful from day one – a recipe for disillusionment and self-doubt.  Actually, the first few weeks of university can be disorientating and lonely.  Not everyone finds herself living in a scene from ‘Brideshead Revisited’ in Freshers’ Week.  Equally, the later weeks (and months and years) can be quite challenging, at least at times.  This does not mean that the whole experience will not be immeasurably valuable in shaping her as a person, extending her sphere of understanding and expanding her horizons.

Talk of finding one’s passion, ubiquitous in education, can lead students to feel as though there is something wrong with them if they haven’t been transported onto a higher emotional plane by a subject by the time they are 17.  Reassuring them that they can (and will) have fulfilling lives at university and beyond without the need for a daily diet of ‘peak experiences’ but simply by spending time with people they like studying something they find interesting may be the best encouragement we can give as they prepare to press ‘send’ on those UCAS forms.