Bristol University, where seven students have killed themselves in less than 18 months. Photo: Olaf Protze / Getty Images
Dear Prof. Brady,
Greetings. I hope this note finds you in good heart. I am writing to thank you for your recent reflection about the tragic cluster of suicides of students at your university in an interview with the Guardian. Thank you for sharing your candid views with us. It is refreshing to note a vice-chancellor speaking frankly on this heartbreaking subject.
But as you point out: “Unfortunately this is a global sectoral issue. If you look over the last five to eight years across the UK, but equally in Canada and the US, the number of students seeking help for and declaring mental health issues has almost tripled.”
You have identified some of the possible reasons for this continuing and deepening crisis, such as the social media, student debt, desire for perfection, uncertain future, the world in turmoil, etc.
All of the above reasons are true, but in my opinion this is not the full story, the story that somehow the universities themselves, wittingly or unwittingly, are responsible for making.
The two main reasons that I believe were omitted from your list are:
1- Our prevalent and dominant global economic model and system which promotes individualism, selfishness, greed, feral competition, rat-race, targets after targets, success as measured by how much one earns and such like; which in turn has given us an age of anger, cynicism, frustration, hopelessness, loneliness and lack of self-worth, devoid of values, virtues and trust;
2- Our education and teaching model that have adopted the above values, which in turn, have sustained and given credibility to the above economic system.
I am often asked: ‘What is the main role and function of a "good" education?’ or indeed ‘What is a UNIVERSITY?’ ,questions that I strongly believe have not been answered by our university leaders. Critical questions which remains to be answered.
Thus, is a 'good education' to equip students with marketable skills to help countries compete in a global, information-based workplace? Has this overwhelmed other historically important purposes of education, and thus, short- changing us all and in particular the students?
If there is a shared national purpose for education, should it be oriented only toward enhancing the narrow vision of a country's economic success? Should education be answerable only to a narrowly defined economic bottom line, or do we need to discover a more comprehensive, inclusive bottom line, given the catastrophic crises that we are witnessing all around us? Are the interests of the individuals and selective groups overwhelming the common good that the education system is meant to support? Should our cherished educational values be all up for sale to the highest bidder? Should private sector management become the model for our mainly publicly-funded education system? Should the language and terminology of for profit- only business model, such as “downsizing”, “outsourcing”, “restructuring”, ”marketisation”, “privatisation” and “deregulation”, amongst others, be allowed to become the values of education, when teaching and learning is nothing short of a vocation and sacrament?
The Guardian in an editorial on the lecturers’ pension strike, summarises the above quite clearly:
‘The public see excessive vice-chancellors’ pay while lecturers face low-paid casualised employment. The government wants universities to think like big businesses. They lure students like customers with shiny new labs, luxury accommodation and sports stadiums – amenities built with cash from fees and debt. To make the sums add up, pension liabilities are being offloaded. Higher education attuned to private markets will prioritise cash surpluses over societal wellbeing.’ Here you have it: ‘Societal wellbeing’!
Unless we change direction, and acknowledge the above, then we will continue banging our heads against the brickwall, unable to address and hopefully resolve this worldwide tragedy.
All my adult life I have been an academic, engaged with university teaching and students, until a few years back, when due to feeling unwell and unhappy, I left my vocation with early retirement. Therefore, what I write is totally based on my conviction and experience that we must be of assistance and support to our youth, the students and indeed to our fellow academic colleagues who are also under tremendous pressure, suffering from anxiety, depression, panic attacks and feelings of unhappiness, sadness and loneliness.
To press this point, please let me quote a passage from “My Story”:
‘Life is so full of unpredictable beauty and strange surprises
As many people, wiser than me have noted, our lives and the world in which we all live, are so unpredictable. Things happen suddenly, unexpectedly. We want to feel we are in control of our own existence. In some ways we are, in some ways we're not ... Life, it can bring you so much joy and yet at the same time cause so much pain.
I was so devastated that after this wonderful journey, full of joy and happiness, achievements and success, due to some reasons beyond my control, I started to feel unwell, unhappy, not enjoying what I was doing and teaching, especially when I lost all confidence in the value of moral-free economics that I was teaching my students, and more.
In 1999 I voluntarily resigned from my post at Coventry University. It goes without saying that, I was heartbroken and extremely hurt that I was unable to nurture and develop further what I had envisioned and built.
Looking back, reflecting on what has happened, I think, somehow, somebody, somewhere, had planned it so that I, too, should have a life, similar to the life of Coventry itself: fall and rise again.”
And this is why I have made it my mission to write and talk about this subject and offer possible paths to addressand resolve this national and global tragedy.
In 2015 I wrote an open letter to the university leaders around the world, which I would very much like to share with you:
Then, still earlier in 2011 I had written an article Why Happiness Should be Taught at Our Universities
In these two articles, amongst many more, I had tried to discuss and debate students’ welfare and wellbeing, by combining my own experiences, knowledge, insight, and education.
I will be delighted if you read these and share your thoughts with me. This will make me very happy.
I hope, we can all become an instrument of hope to our students, the youth, the world over and begin a journey of hope, all of us, together, where we may challenge the norm, encourage volunteerism and service. A journey that will be about serving our communities, our world, and caring for our planet, our home. Finding out more about ourselves than we ever imagined possible. Having a dream. A journey about a mission and our vocation in life.
Hope for a better life and a better world will sustain us, makes us feel better and valued. Hope is the best medicine to heal the pain of our complicated modern lives.