By Professor Craig Jackson – Head of Psychology at Birmingham City University

One difference between this generation of students and the ones before them concerns the massive amount of responsibilities they have. These differences cannot be ignored as they are pervasive and ever-present.

When higher education was free and viewed as a privilege, students were encouraged to view university as a space for finding themselves and what they may want to do. A place to grow and mature.

Yet many students today, faced with mounting debt from day one of their studies, are unlikely to have the luxury of experimenting. Coursework and the requirements to perform constantly throughout the year (as opposed to merely at end of term exams) is no doubt a sobering experience.

Students feel they have to leave university as some kind of skilled-expert graduate who will be ready to hit the ground running. I’m sure ghastly uber-competitive shows such as ‘The Apprentice’ do little to discourage such thoughts.

Many students are concerned about their employability and future prospects, from as early as the first year of their courses – with some feeling the pressure to get work experience or voluntary work under their belts. Viewing the freshman year as a “mess-about fun year” is no longer an option.

Universities are under increasing pressure to monitor students’ attendances at lectures and seminars, with absences often quickly followed up by tutors and academic staff eager to spot any emerging problems. It is reassuring for parents perhaps that academic staff are “on the case” but students must feel an acute loss of autonomy and some liberty.

Equally, too many university courses almost infantilise students, feeding them whatever materials they need (lecture notes, reading lists, assessments); so much as to dash notions of freedom and instead create deflation at an anticipated experience lost.

The British Psychological Society has acknowledged a problem among psychology undergraduates nervous about what it calls ‘Statistics Anxiety’ – whereby students dread being ‘picked’ on in seminars or lectures if they do not know the answers, for fear they might reveal themselves as not being as bright as their peers, a problem often exacerbated by difficult research method lectures. This ‘soft’ issue is being taken increasingly seriously by university tutors as it can create misery and tension for many undergraduates.

What constitutes a source of stress can vary massively between individuals, as can the behavioural responses that manifest. We do know though that when people are stressed, there are psychological, behavioural, and physical responses.

Stress usually occurs when students cannot cope, feeling they cannot meet all of the demands placed upon them. Most have insight when this is happening, but roughly 3-4 out of 10 will not be aware of what is happening to them and why. Stressed people eat / drink / smoke twice as much as they usually do; they rush around more; they have more slips / trips / falls; they get into more interpersonal conflicts; they have lower pain thresholds and tolerance of difficulties, and they are more likely to develop low-level mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. With ongoing chronic stress their immune systems can also start to perform at a reduced rate.

While I often reflect on the age difference between myself as a tutor, and my undergraduates, such conversations with the students usually always end the same way – by me saying, “I might want to be a teenager again, but I would not wish to be a student again in this day and age.”

Students should see their personal tutors for anything that troubles them. We can help. We want to help. And we were all students once.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University
Craig Jackson

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