If we sincerely believe that higher education is a public good then we can argue it, therefore, deserves public funding. There are many government programmes, on the other hand, that are funded by the public that I do not personally believe are in the public interest. Two examples would include our nuclear weapons programme and our prohibitive drugs policy. My own view is that public contributions that go towards these wasteful, immoral and dangerous programmes should – and actually could – enable the scrapping of tuition fees.
Moreover, the actual that debt students accumulate after graduating from university is ridiculous. Why should students have to be straddled by this enormous debt before even landing their first job? The mental health consequences, however, of student debt concern me more than the fact that students will be paying it off over a lifetime. Experts have long linked financial debt to mental health issues, and student debt is no exception. There has been a 28% increase in students seeking counselling at Russell Group universities and the mental health charity Mind links this steep rise in depression and anxiety to financial stress and the burden of debt.
Some people say that you will never notice student debt since only a tiny fraction of your salary goes towards it every month. Plus, you only start paying it back once you reach a certain salary threshold. However, when you consider that tuition fees alone – regardless of debt incurred from living expenses and everything else – can be over £30,000 after three years, this can certainly affect your future. With soaring house prices and the financial struggles of everyday life to contend with after graduation, this debt can appear like a heavy and unnecessary burden. It may also be a disincentive to pursue academia further, given the costs of studying for a Masters degree.
The official government body and companies that support students with tuition fees offer relief for the symptom of the problem. As do bursaries and scholarships. There’s no denying that. But what we really should be doing is addressing the root cause of the problem, and for me, that means scrapping tuition fees.
Students in the US are also heavily burdened by their student debt, with many students losing sleep and isolating themselves over the issue. It’s worth highlighting that lack of sleep and isolation are two risk factors for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and this helps explain why rates of mental health disorders are so high among American students.
It is very saddening to know that some students end up taking their own lives as a means of escaping debt, or as a consequence of a mental health issue in which debt played a role. Counselling services at universities across the country are stretched, unable to deal with the demand. This shows that something is seriously wrong. While universities desperately need more funding and resources to deliver high-quality mental health interventions for students, it’s worth emphasising again that we do not have to subject young people to these unnecessary stresses. Education should be a challenging enterprise, not a system that damages the well-being of students.
If we truly want to give equal priority to mental health, then we need to do more to lessen the burden of student debt, and preferably eliminate it completely.