“Barren Utilitarianism”: Mental Health on Campus

It’s been hard to avoid the government’s latest promises regarding improvements to support for students with mental health issues on Twitter today. It’s laughable just how vague and pointless it is.

I’ve been reminded of activities that have been happening over the past few years at Goldsmiths, which I have kept an eye on by proxy, attending a few meetings whilst I was still a student there back in 2017.

The Gold Paper has been a working document that began life as an institutionally-specific response to the government’s Green Paper which, when published, “left us in no doubt that [the] government is aggressively pursuing the privatization of higher education.”

The Green paper has become a perfect example of what Mark Fisher called “business ontology” — discussed on this blog a few times recently, albeit in other rough-shod contexts — for the way it wholly diminished conversations around student wellbeing by making finance and senior management the bottom line of every issue currently facing British universities. You hear things like: “Improvements in student wellbeing up attendance, saving millions in potentially lost student fees.” When universities approach every issue from a defensive position, assisting only so they can protect their wallets, communities continue to suffer.

The Goldsmiths UCU blog writes:

The 2010 Browne Review began the process of turning higher education into a consumer driven activity that students buy in exchange for skills for the job market. The Green Paper finishes this process by effectively removing entirely any reference to higher education in terms of non-economic value leading to what Collini (2016) refers to as ‘barren utilitarianism’.

I like this phrase, “barren utilitarianism”, if only because it describes perfectly the Tory mindset — a mindset that is blatantly on display again with this new “policy” (if you can seriously call it that).

Considering the three-point plan posted on Twitter today, we can see that the government’s plan of action is basically to improve their management infrastructure, rather than actually deal with any of the material circumstances and conditions that lie at the root of various institutional crises that have occurred across the country.

The most obvious flaw here is the focus on students. Spikes in staff and student suicides, as well as recent strikes at all levels of university infrastructure — from lecturing to cleaning staff — show that these issues are extensive and not limited to student bodies.

Student distress is symptomatic of countless wider issues and so, if the government wants to make substantial change, it must broaden its scope. Transitions from school to university and better links with parents seem like further attempts to outsource responsibility, distributing it to areas that are likewise already struggling.

It seems like a slippery slope towards a “care in the community”-lite which, as anyone who has dealt with the reality of this issue knows, has nothing to do with community, socially or ethically speaking, instead becoming a policy of handing over responsibility to people woefully unqualified, unable to cope and offer the necessary levels of support, protecting profits through a policy which should otherwise be called “state neglect”.

My view of this situation concerning universities is obviously blinkered and biased — I’m a Goldsmiths alumnus, minor member of staff and still live five minutes from campus — but I mention the situation at Goldsmiths if only because I have not heard of any similar staff/student-led initiatives occurring elsewhere, and these sorts of approaches deserve wider publicity and understanding.

The psychological affect of privatisation on students has long been violently public. The feelings of precarity and hopelessness amongst students has been pronounced since at least 2010. Around that same time, in the immediate aftermath of the protests around the tripling of student fees, everyone saw the incredibly distressing footage of police attacking Warwick University students conducting a peaceful sit-in.

I’ve written here previously — I think… I can’t find it now — about the distress this footage caused further afield. The possibility of being open to attack on campus — in what felt like, and was, for all intents and purposes, our homes — made so many people feel impotent, devoid of any say or control over their surroundings, at the mercy of the cold arm of the state that was reacting violently to what many saw ahead on the horizon: the very situation that the government is now saying they want to remedy.

Nothing has really changed since that time, however. Things have only stagnated.

The explosively violent crisis that engulfed universities in the early 2010s has continued and since been normalised, allowing weak non-interventions such as this to be heralded as somehow “progressive”, rather than being seen for what they really are: a bandaid on a wound that has long been septic.

I’m thinking of the Gold Paper again today because of the marked improvements on the government’s new policies that their (notably compromised) demands offer.

These demands have been circulating, within Goldsmiths at least, for at least three years. Last year, things were accelerated, as so many things were, by Mark Fisher’s death. A petition was released that was used to lobby senior management of the university.

Senior management, faced with an admittedly knotted and complex crisis, asked for demands to be whittled down to three bullet-points. With an eye-roll, students and staff nonetheless agreed. They recommended the following priorities:

1 Inquiry into College Mental Health Crisis: An urgent inquiry into the mental health crisis on campus; a commitment to increased funding for counselling and a re-structuring of services based on a consultation process with both staff and students.

2. Housing Justice: In line with the ongoing student rent strike, we demand that rent in Student Halls of Residence be cut to 50% of the average student maintenance loan and that the Halls of Residence are brought up to the minimum housing standard stipulated by the housing charity Shelter.

3. Democratisation of College Governance: At least 50% of Council should be elected by staff and students at Goldsmiths. Alongside this, the Warden’s open meetings should be turned into a genuinely democratic forum to which all staff and students can bring motions and debates that, if passed, have to be acted on. Timetables should be organised so that all can attend and Assembly attendance should be reflected in AL and fractional contracts.

These demands, reduced to three, remain the most concise suggestion of what senior management at Goldsmiths, and at universities elsewhere, could do to improve staff and student lives. The government’s new proposal, of course, only deals with point #1 but even this alone shows how out of tune with life at a modern university the Conservative party is.

Housing and governance are two further points, perhaps superfluous to some, but they are intrinsically entwined with mental health issues on campus. They are notably institutional-specific but can easily be scaled up to address issues which violently affect young people around the country.

Housing is endemically subpar and overpriced, and feelings of communal impotence related to influencing governance are a mainstay of the student mindset. This is evident not only at the level of the university but at the level of the state more generally.

There is nothing more disenfranchising than this feeling of having no control over your own circumstances, being placed on a Higher Education conveyor belt, living in damp, mould-ridden, dilapidated but nonetheless extortionate student housing. Better funded counselling and support services would go a long way as to making students feel less alone but this does nothing to alleviate the material conditions that are contributing to this distress more generally.

Mental health is not a one-stop issue that can be solved with six weeks of government-funded CBT.

The university, despite appearances, needn’t be a bubble. Communities within and without universities, overlapping but kept distinct, are handled with a sort of divide and conquer approach and this newly articulated government policy is no different.

What these new policies seem to suggest is that the government is looking at handling supposedly new developments, limited to student experiences, which they themselves have created. They are not only tackling issues half-heartedly, seemingly without any input from the people the policies are intended to benefit, but they are skirting around the fact that these issues that are the direct result of previous Conservative policies, implement over the last decade.

The full extent of these issues, whilst complex, is not unmanageable. In fact, the People’s Tribunal at Goldsmiths in 2015 laid out the specific circumstances of that institution’s problems rigorously and damningly.

I’ll end this post here, recommending anyone from any institution to watch the video above. It highlights the vagueness of the new government policy in striking contrast. Showing the full scope of the situation and showing just how inadequate this three-point plan is to what students and staff have long been facing.

You can also skip to 15.20 for the infrequently publicised speech that Mark Fisher gave at the tribunal, particularly haunting after his death, but the entire video could not be better for outlining the complex issues that universities are actively trying to deal with, which they talk about very openly, and which senior management and the government continue to ignore almost entirely.

See also: The #MedsWorkedForMe (But Nothing Else Did)

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