HC Deb 27 November 1995 vol 267 cc1029-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Burns.]

10 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I am very grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to raise this important matter.

Earlier today, we were discussing the Education (Student Loans) Bill, and, in so doing, we touched on the view of many hon. Members that it does not begin to tackle the growing problems of poverty and hardship faced by many students. In this brief debate, I want to draw attention to the growing concern about the significant rise in the level of stress among students in higher education—stress brought on partly, but not exclusively, by financial worries.

If the Government are not prepared to take serious action to reduce the cause of those problems, as they ought, they should at least take action to assist higher education institutions and to bolster their support and welfare services to enable better counselling and guidance to be given to students suffering the effects of such stress.

In answers to recent parliamentary questions, the Government have acknowledged that, in the past five years, they have undertaken no research into the number of students suffering from stress and depression. In such answers, they have also argued that they have no powers to intervene, and admitted that they have taken no steps to improve welfare and counselling services during the past five years.

During the summer, I carried out a detailed survey of the issue. The results were very worrying. As a result of the survey's indications, I believe that there are a number of areas in which the Government could take action.

When conducting my survey, I contacted all 117 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about levels of stress and student suicide during the past 10 years. I ensured that Ministers received a copy. Seventy-two per cent. responded, and, to ensure that the results were rigorous and consistent, the 40 universities that provided us with complete data were used in the final statistical analysis.

The study was based on a survey of the responses from all 72 universities, as well as on the records and informed opinion and comments from welfare counsellors, heads of student services and vice-chancellors. We also liaised with organisations such as the Association for Student Counselling.

The survey showed that, with rare exceptions, universities reported a significant increase in the number of students seeking some form of counselling. Financial concerns were cited as the most common factor inducing stress in students. For example, one university described financial pressures on students as "intolerable".

Other reasons for the need for counselling were also cited. Current academic and future employment pressures were among the common causes mentioned. Academic pressures resulted mainly from the shortage of books and equipment and overcrowded study places. Employment pressures were brought on by knowledge of growing graduate unemployment.

I said that there were a range of different issues. One issue of particular concern, which relates to the debate we had earlier today, is stress caused by money problems. As a result of such money problems, more and more students have to take jobs during term time, which has often led to exhaustion and to their falling behind with their studies.

Only today, I received a letter from a student in Lancaster. Unfortunately, I cannot read her surname. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) in her place. The student, who is at St. Martin's college, wrote: I'm a mature student, a single-parent, who is finding it hard to keep balancing my financial juggling act. I also work part-time as my grant does not even cover my outgoings. I am not allowed income support and family credit was also rejected on the grounds that I get a grant. My case is not unique. Most students are having a difficult time. We have no options but to work to make ends meet. This is causing a lot of stress, physical fatigue and illness. Problems with increasing stress were also caused by the growth in the number of students not being matched by the growth in the number of staff. As a result, lecturers have to deal with larger class sizes, and therefore find it more difficult to give attention to individual students. As one academic in our study reported: There is often little time or energy left for responding to the individual personal and academic needs of students. Sadly, there has been an increase in the number of young people committing suicide. Although the rate of suicide at university is lower than in the most comparable prevailing age group—that is, 15 to 25-year-olds—there has nevertheless been a significant increase in the number of students in higher education committing suicide in recent years. The rate, allowing for the expansion in student numbers, has risen fourfold between 1983–84 and 1993–94.

From the survey, we also noted that male students from 1993–94 were three times more likely to take their lives than female students. We also noted that mature students are especially vulnerable. Of all students who took their own lives, 45 were aged 25 and above, although such students constitute only 22 per cent. of the total student body.

Ours is not the only survey that has looked into the issue. In a somewhat limited survey last month, the British Medical Association discovered that university doctors were reporting a rising number of students being treated for stress-related illness. The survey followed concerns over the mental and physical health of students raised by the British Association of Health Services in Higher Education. It had found growing instances of panic attacks, chronic fatigue and depression among students, especially among those trying to hold down part-time jobs while studying or worrying about their employment prospects on completing their courses.

Professor Colin Pritchard, professor of social work studies at Southampton university, is researching a new book on the causes of suicide, to be called "Suicide—the ultimate rejection?" From his studies, he says that many tragedies could be avoided if students had more access to counselling and one-to-one contact with tutors.

Other sources that support our survey include a recent National Union of Students study, "Values for Money", which was published in March this year. It revealed that one in four students admitted to "often" or "always" worrying about their financial positions, and that 10 per cent. reported often having depressed moods.

The study said that 39 per cent. of the students surveyed considered themselves to be in financial hardship. More than one in four admitted to "often" or "always" worrying about financial hardship, and one in four had considered dropping out of his or her course because of financial difficulties. The survey also confirmed our study, which revealed that many students were now beginning to work part time. Just under a third of those surveyed had worked part time during term time while at university. Of those who worked, 69 per cent. thought that the work had affected their studies.

Universities are well aware of that growing problem. They have responded as well as they could, by providing a range of support and counselling services, with appropriate medical and psychiatrically trained staff where possible. A multi-layered provision has developed, including welfare tutorials offered by academic staff and counsellors alike. Residential wardens in halls of residence and chaplaincies have also become involved.

A range of other support services are developing through student welfare services, provided by either the university or the student union or, in some cases, both. A number of voluntary organisations have become involved in this issue. I draw attention to the valuable work of Nightline.

Having published our survey, we circulated it to the institutions that we had originally invited to respond to it. We received many responses from them in the light of the content of our survey. Plymouth university welfare unit's annual report said: With students facing increasing financial hardship the workload in Welfare has increased dramatically with the first cases of malnutrition in students being reported. The counselling and advisory unit at Westminster university responded by saying that our report is exactly what is needed to bring the whole topic into the open … for several years now it has been a growing problem in British Universities and yet it is one which is scarcely talked about, sometimes even among professionals. In a climate where suicide is still something of a taboo word, it is a great relief to see that our findings are endorsed by objective research such as yours". Essex university said that the picture that our survey paints is clearly recognisable at this University and it adds to the already compelling case for a reform of student funding that would tackle student poverty. This is not primarily a debate about student funding—we had that debate earlier today. However, there is a case for suggesting that the Government could take some action at least to find ways of alleviating some of the difficulties of students suffering as I have described. There are enormous variations from university to university. For example, the "Push Guide to Which University 96" reports widely differing figures for the number of students per counsellor, which range from one counsellor per 36 students to one counsellor per 833 students.

In the past few days, thousands of students have demonstrated in London to protest about increased hardship. At the same time, academics at Westminster university have hosted a conference entitled "Managing Poverty; A one-day conference to explore poverty in education and its impact on the student experience". The time has come for action to be taken.

Edinburgh university, for example, has now set up its own labour exchange to help hard-pressed students find part-time jobs during term time, as an alternative to falling in debt. The Samaritans have launched a new telephone number for students, and many university nightlines now work in conjunction with the Samaritans. Even the Higher Education Funding Council is funding a research project at the university of Northumbria on the increase in the number of students in UK universities who have acute mental health problems. The time has therefore come to take action.

I therefore urge the Minister to consider whether it is possible to establish a working party in conjunction with the National Union of Students, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the relevant voluntary organisations to review counselling services in our universities and student unions; to identify them and publicise examples of good practice; and to report on any identified deficiencies in levels and type of provision. I hope that they will also find the means of creating better publicity about the availability of existing student counselling services. In particular, I hope that they will find a way to target such publicity at male students, since our study suggests that those students in particular still feel that there is a stigma attached to seeking help.

The Secretary of State, having seen a copy of our survey results, responded to me only today, saying that it related to a matter which cannot help but concern everyone involved in higher education. Based on the Minister's response, I hope that that concern will be translated into action.

10.15 pm
The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Mr. Eric Forth)

I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) not only for bringing this important matter to the attention of the House, but for doing me the courtesy, as he invariably does, of letting me have the background material to the debate so that I could consider it and give a measured response.

I looked carefully at the document that the hon. Gentleman sent to me, which forms the basis of the debate, and, because it is relevant to our consideration, it would be fair to quote the phrase: We feel it appropriate to emphasise that this is by no means an authoritative survey. The hon. Gentleman has accepted that. I do not mean to undermine the thrust of the findings contained in the document, but it is fair to say that, like so much other information on the subject, the document is not necessarily representative. It may not give the full picture, but it certainly highlights a matter of concern not only to the hon. Gentleman but to many other people.

I should like to quote two paragraphs from the document because they provide a relevant background to the subject. The first paragraph states: In the last ten years a dramatic change has taken place in the field of Higher Education. More and more people have enjoyed the benefits of higher education. Students are increasingly drawn from a wider variety of backgrounds; there are more mature students, women returners, disabled students and people from ethnic minority backgrounds. The paragraph also outlines that whereas in the 1983–84 academic year there were 882,000 students in higher education, that number had risen by 1993–94 to 1,573,000. We are obviously dealing with a much larger and disparate group of people in higher education, whereas, as the House will know, many years ago it was an elite that received higher education. I think it is fair to describe it as such. Now, thankfully, the kind of people who are coming into higher education are a much more varied group. We all welcome that. That is the first relevant factor that one must bear in mind.

The hon. Gentleman's report also refers to an interesting and revealing fact. The relevant paragraph states: The expansion of the university system has taken its toll on the student population. With rare exception, universities report more and more students seeking some help. The next sentence contains the key phrase: Clearly that increase can be attributed to the growing awareness in our society of counselling services. To seek professional help is no longer the taboo it once was. I find that revealing and relevant because there is no doubt, whether one agrees with it or not, and one does not have to, that society in the 1990s has become much more aware of the concept of stress and its manifestations. Right across society people have become much more willing to identify stress in themselves and to seek advice about and support for it. Some people may almost regret that, while others may welcome it. It is not for me to do either on this occasion.

As background to the case, it is a relevant consideration that whereas, in the past, people sought advice or help from their families or friends, or perhaps went to the bar and got drunk, if they felt under stress, now they are much more prepared to identify stress themselves, and seek advice for that.

I quote once more from the report. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is happy that I am quoting so frequently from his document. However, as one senior academic observed, `for the counsellors the irony is that the kind of help which they can offer is now highly acceptable to many just at a time when the level of distress is greater than it has probably ever been.''' We should bear in mind the fact that that is the context in which we consider that difficult aspect. That should be weighed against the claims that the hon. Gentleman made about drop-out rates. Drop-outs were also mentioned in our earlier debate on Second Reading of the Education (Student Loans) Bill.

Our figures on drop-out rates do not support the contentions that have been made, not only in the debate, but previously. According to information that is available to the Department for Education and Employment, the drop-out rate of students from full-time and sandwich first degree courses is about 17 per cent. in the latest academic year for which we have reliable figures, and we know of no evidence of a rising trend.

That rate has fluctuated. The rate was 17 per cent. in 1987–88, before the introduction of student loans. As far as I am aware, it continues to be close to that rate. It may increase and decrease year on year—that would he no surprise—but I know of no firm evidence to support the allegation that was made that drop-out rates from higher education are significantly greater than they were in the past. However, we are examining that and I have urged my officials to consider the reasons for the incidence of drop-out rates in different institutions for that and connected reasons.

Allegations are also made about the reasons behind drop-outs. I am aware of a recent survey at Sheffield Hallam university, which was published earlier this year, on the results of its retention rates research project. It covered, I admit, a limited sample of students who had left the university without completing their courses.

Interestingly, the research showed that, when asked for the primary reason for dropping out, 44 per cent. of the students who had dropped out cited an unsuitable course, 19 per cent. cited personal reasons and 16 per cent. cited academic problems. When asked for all reasons, 41 per cent. said that they disliked the course and 17 per cent. mentioned personal reasons. Eleven per cent. named financial problems as a factor—the same as the proportion who mentioned academic difficulties.

I believe that that research gives the lie to several contentions that were made today in different ways—not least the allegation that student hardship or poverty is driving students out of higher education. That survey, albeit of only one institution, does not support that contention.

The survey suggests what, I believe, we have all known—that many students become unhappy or disillusioned with the course that they have selected as they find out more about it, and switch courses or leave altogether. That is regrettable but understandable. It does not support the contention or allegation that widespread student hardship or poverty is driving students out of higher education—almost the opposite.

Whether the survey supports contentions about much greater stress, whether stress is greater now than it has been or whether simply more people are prepared to admit to it or recognise it and seek help for it, is a complex question, to which we do not have ready answers.

As I believe that the hon. Gentleman said, most institutions take the welfare of students very seriously. They all produce a statement setting out their policy in respect of student welfare, and they acknowledge their responsibility for the overall educational and personal development and well-being of their students.

In the further education sector, if I may mention that for a moment, Further Education Funding Council inspections have shown that, in all but one case from 163 reports, student guidance and support was judged as good or excellent. Given that higher education institutions are independent and autonomous organisations and responsible for their internal affairs, we always find it difficult to justify intervening in what they do and the way in which they do it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned in passing the possible effect of larger classes. One must tread very carefully in that respect, not only because, if we make comparisons between higher education class sizes in this country and those of our European neighbours, we tend to come out rather better. I know of no comparative work that has been done comparing stress levels in our institutions and those in mainland Europe, but the drop-out rates in mainland Europe are much higher. Moreover, as far as I am aware—I am having this examined—staff-student ratios there are much higher than ours. The findings also ignore the strides made by technology in dealing with different student numbers in different circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman concluded that it was for the Government to act to alleviate the difficulties in the higher education sector that he had identified. He cited widely differing practices in higher education student support. He then asked for a working party involving the Government, the National Union of Students and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to identify good practice, produce publicity and so on. At this point I must differ with him.

I do not think that such action is a matter for the Government—not only because the Government would not naturally become involved in such an area, but because of sensitivities with regard to the relationship between my Department and higher education institutions, with their proud traditions of autonomy and independence. I am somewhat puzzled: this may indeed be natural territory for either the NUS or the CVCP, or perhaps for both those bodies working together, but Government intervention should not be required to initiate the action described by the hon. Gentleman.

Surely, if the NUS shares the hon. Gentleman's concern about its members, it is a matter for it—with all the resources at its disposal, its contacts on campuses and its national network of information—to act in whatever way it chooses. No doubt it would be beneficial if it could involve the CVCP. I fail to see why the case made by the hon. Gentleman should involve the Government.

It is not for me to judge, at this stage, whether the level of stress alleged in the document produced by the hon. Gentleman exists, but I have hinted at my reservations. I refer not only to the use of the term "stress", as we now see it developing throughout society, or to the change in the nature of the higher education student body, but more generally to the extent to which stress is increasing—or perhaps we are more aware of it, or perhaps more people are claiming to experience it—and the extent to which it may vary from one institution to another. Surely all that is natural territory for the NUS and bodies affiliated to it—and perhaps for the CVCP, if it can be encouraged to participate.

I do not want to denigrate or minimise what the hon. Gentleman has said, or to deny that concern exists—as it would in any other part of society. Nor is it for me to suggest—although I am tempted to—that those who are involved in higher education, and are no doubt qualified and proud to be so, should in many ways be better equipped internally to handle the phenomenon of stress. Nevertheless, I feel that this is not a matter for Government.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts my analysis. I am glad that he raised the matter, and we shall want to keep a much closer eye on it. I shall wait with interest to see whether the NUS, the CVCP or any other body will be prepared to take up this important issue as a result of tonight's debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.

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