by Kennedy Walker 

Last week The Independent reported that university debts are so high that students are suffering from increased mental health problems and struggling to afford food. A study by the mental health charity Mind found that 43,000 students at the Russel Group institutions access counselling services in the 2014-2015 academic year, compared to 34,000 three years earlier. This 28% jump suggests a relationship between the trebling of tuition fees and students’ need for mental health services.

These days people on three-year undergraduate courses can easily find themselves in £53,000 worth of debt plus interest after graduating. And this isn’t even taking into account the cost of living and rent.

So who’s suffering the hike in fees, and the associated health issues? To be honest, probably everyone, but as a working class student who was around others who didn’t share my background at university, its stark how higher education remains so exclusive to those of us who grew up in lower-income families.

I worked full-time and studied full-time. My financial situation meant that I didn’t enjoy studying or necessarily do it for the right reasons, but saw it as a means to an to end. I didn’t consider the societal issues that had put me in this position, and made the decision to get my head down and get on with it, ignoring the clear effect this was having on every facet of my life.

I’s a normal part of the rat race, right? I just needed to embrace that neoliberal wet dream: competition is healthy. And so the goal was to make my struggle as invisible as possible. Middle-class people might think it’s okay to talk about how much money they (supposedly) lack, but everyone who’s poor knows you do not go talking about how little you actually have.

I guess I always assumed the situation would improve for people like me, not get worse. Clearly, that hasn’t worked, though, and neither does this mythical struggle to success.

United for Education march, London by Garry Knight
United for Education march, London by Garry Knight

In the face of the assaults on higher education, students and staff are taking action. During December 2016, students at the University of Warwick occupied a new £5.3 million conference facility on their campus in protest against the marketisation of education and the casualisation of academic staff. Earlier in the autumn, students from 25 campuses across the UK gathered to hold workshops on how to run rent strikes in response to the increased cost of accommodation. Whilst in November, over 15,000 students marched through central London to demand the government ensures access to free, quality education.

Collective resistance in this form only comes once we reject that our day-to-day struggles are unique to us, and acknowledge that they are shared by many. To make your reality visible is to take a step towards change. Do your student halls lack heating? Do they have a mould problem? Or are they just straight-up unaffordable? UCL students held a rent strike and it worked. Have a private landlord not keeping to the contract? These Bristol University students took theirs to court and won.

Reject the rat race. We are not rats. We have to protect our mental health. We can’t keep paying rent instead of eating, or think of working double full-time weeks as acceptable. It’s not acceptable, but we can change it.

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fullsizerenderKennedy Walker is the Campaigns Coordinator at Goldsmiths Student Union and previously worked at CLASS think tank as their Communications Officer and Global Justice Now in the activism team. Kennedy also has experience in grassroots organising, youth mobilisation and political education having been involved in Take Back The City and Demand The Impossible. His commentary tends to focus on issues around race, class, queerness and inequality.

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