Ever since the coronavirus outbreak, 52 percent of students have felt more lonely, and 45 percent have felt more down than usual, according to Caring Universities’ latest survey. At present, one in three students suffers mild to severe depression, and one in five students suffers mild to severe anxiety. It should be noted that the number of students suffering depression was unacceptably high even before the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, we have become so inured to these numbers that they no longer seem to give any cause for concern. It is as if this depression pandemic has already been accepted, as if feeling depressed is a character trait that is inevitable for my generation of students. I take issue with that.
Although the problem is complex, it can be said to relate to several societal and economic trends. You see, it is a fact that my generation is experiencing a superficial quantification of life and a hardening of attitudes. We have become obsessed with the number of likes, followers and friends we have on social networks, with quantity always trumping quality. This trend is not limited to social networks alone. It can also be observed in higher education. In the present system, what seems to matter most is rankings – i.e. data that will tell students where they rank in the grand scheme of things. It starts with the selection procedures used for many bachelor degrees, where you will be assigned a rank. Once you are in, every single exam mark you will receive during the course of your degree programme will come with information on the average mark and how you fared in relation to the other people taking the exam. The fact that this (1) contributes to the toxic idea that high marks matter more than anything else, and (2) is highly confronting to some students appears to be less important than the creation of a competitive environment, which is what the university is after.
This same competitive environment is further reinforced by EUR’s demanding requirements for first-year students: if you don’t pass all your Year-1 exams in one year and don’t have any compelling mitigating circumstances, you will be kicked out. And not only that, but you won’t be allowed to apply again for the same degree programme for the next three years. These kinds of requirements, which result in increased pressure to perform, adversely affect students’ mental health, but that does not appear to matter. After all, the requirements have caused the university to attain one goal – students are no longer satisfied with barely scraping through their exams.
It is beyond doubt that the abolition of loan-free student grants has increased pressure on students. After all, they must pay tuition fees, so now they either have to incur considerable student loan debt or work long hours in their side jobs (which has now become all but impossible due to the pandemic). It is a fact that our younger generations will be worse off financially than their parents, partially because they are not interesting enough from a political point of view. This makes sense: young people have damaged their own political clout by not bothering to vote during elections and by displaying a clear lack of interest in politics, compared to baby boomers.
How Erasmus University fits into this
Recently, Erasmus University has recognised that there is a problem, judging from the €3.1 million it has allocated to plans designed to improve student wellbeing. The university deserves praise for this. However, I don’t think the way in which the university intends to use these funds will have the desired impact on students. Among other things, EUR seeks to develop a health app projected to cost €1.1 million and construct a student living room projected to cost nearly half a million. These projects will be financed by the funds generated by the abolition of student grants. None of the millions of euros awarded by the government will be allocated to the appointment of additional student psychologists, even though EUR desperately needs more counsellors. Almost 60 percent of the amount allocated to student wellbeing projects will be used up by project managers, coordinators, lecturers, PhD students, etc. Therefore, the University Council has recently rejected this plan and asked the policy makers to come up with a better plan.
Of course, it is naive to believe that we, the university, can solve the mental health crisis affecting young people. But let’s face it – Erasmus University has contributed to the creation of this high-pressure environment and continues to do so today. After all, it still insists on demanding requirements for first-year students, requiring them to pass all their exams in Year 1 in order to be allowed to stay on. It claims that this is resulting in considerable advantages: students need less time to complete their degrees (which is financially advantageous for universities) and they obtain higher marks. I’m sure this is true, but at what price to society?
It’s time for a U-turn. Please temporarily abolish the requirements for first-year students, and when you reintroduce them, please make them less demanding. Invest millions of euros in the appointment of additional student psychologists and projects with reasonable budgets that actually have an impact. Tell our politician friends in The Hague that the situation is serious, and lobby for the reintroduction of student grants and full compensation for our current students. But most of all, get rid of this toxic culture with its constant pressure to perform, and of this ever-competitive environment. After all, we are dealing with young adults who are only just beginning to find their way in life and who deserve to have a good time at uni. Too many people are forgetting this.
Armand Gozé, 20, is a third-year International Business Administration student at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), Erasmus University. In addition, he currently serves on the University Council and is a member of the Student Wellbeing taskforce.