Postgraduate student’s officer Mark Crawford, the figure behind the campaign to improve mental health services at UCL, outlines the failings of the UCL Student Psychological Service system and explains why the student body must demand action from the university.
When registering with Student Psychological Services back in July, UCL’s on campus counselling service, I was told it would be no sooner than October before any therapy might begin. It’s now rattling on towards November and my inbox remains, bar a scattering of socialist email subscriptions and Netflix spam, as empty as the government’s kind words stating they will ‘look at’ student debt.
According to research carried out by the students’ union last year, a third of all those who register with SPS, or around 1200 people, never receive any support at all; and those who do only begin treatment after a bare minimum of six weeks of waiting. This is appalling even by the low standards of the sector, where the average waiting time has been reported to be fifteen days.
A period of poor mental health, especially when triggered by some sudden and immediate trauma, can very quickly snowball if left untreated. A waiting time of six weeks is more than an inconvenience; for many, it can mean the difference between mild stretches of anxiety and the onset of depression – if not something more severe.
But there’s a wider story to the mental health crisis that has come to engulf our higher education system over the past few years, and it’s not by any means particular to UCL. Having to work multiple part-time jobs to cover costs following the scrapping of maintenance grants, our debt-ridden horizons and the career-intensive pressures of graduating into a stagnating job market all atomise us, leaving us alienated from the very reason for which universities exist – as places to study, and to learn.
The current structures of our higher education system – intensified by life here in London, with its exploitative rents and high cost of living – are, to put it simply, making us ill.
It’s a system that has to be radically transformed, to be sure; but until that happens, and our education is truly free, liberated and democratic, our universities must enact their fundamental obligations as public universities and fund their frontline mental services properly, and to make them truly accessible to all.
Earlier this year, 2000 students signed our petition calling on UCL to contribute additional resources to SPS. But senior management has refused to listen, instead carrying out a tokenistic ‘review’ of its mental health services and concluding that it wouldn’t add one single penny in budgeting.
That’s why Students’ Union UCL is launching a grassroots campaign demanding that the university properly fund our counselling services. On Tuesday last week, as UCL satirised World Mental Health day by hosting ‘dog therapy’ sessions to distract from its refusals elsewhere to provide real health care for its students, we protested by dropping a banner in the main quad.
The claim – repeatedly championed with some alarm by UCL senior management – that we can’t afford this funding is simply absurd. We’ve estimated that 6.5 additional counsellors would be needed so that all those who register with SPS can be seen, to the cost of £340,000. This figure is, if you’ll believe it, less than the Provost’s basic pay package.
It was recently revealed that as many as 196 staff members at UCL earn over £140,000 per year, not including bonuses and other perks. Do the maths: less than one percent of UCL’s 11,000 staff members take home perhaps £40,000,000 of our academic community’s wealth. Yet apparently there is no money to fund healthcare for students.
There’s a deep, structural inequality at the very core of how UCL functions as a university, and it has to be challenged. That is what our campaign will be doing – and I’d encourage anyone and everyone willing to fight for UCL to be run in the interests of its students to join it.