I was sorry I could not attend the ‘Improving Student Mental Health Outcomes’ Conference, due to my commitments in the House of Commons. I was invited on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Mental Health; as well as my Parliamentary colleagues across the House, who recognise that student mental health is an issue that has bubbled beneath the surface of our institutions, as cultural and structural changes have pushed the student experience further towards a metric-driven, value-for-money exercise. This conference is especially timely as it is currently Mental Health Awareness week.
University should be an opportunity to explore ideas, meet new people and develop your world-view; we’re here this morning because, for an increasing number of our young people, this simply isn’t the case – and it’s our collective responsibility to listen, understand and do what we can to improve student mental health outcomes.
One of the most poignant things I’ve learnt as a member of the APPG is how frighteningly early mental health issues embed themselves in our psyche – which leads me to believe that university can trigger existing mental health disorders as well as creating new ones.
In that respect, the question is – how can we prepare our young people for the transition to university?
I ask myself that question as a legislator and a parent, and my first responsibilities in both roles is to listen.
I’d like to share my thoughts on student mental health, as well as a couple of policies that we, the Labour Party, would introduce in government to support young people’s mental health before-and-as they transition to university.
Student’s mental health is vital in our times, due to the isolation that moving away to university can bring, as well as the constant online presence of Social Media, which exaggerates every flaw and highlights differences between our experiences. University should be a place where young people grow into adults, trying new ideas and experiences, meeting people from other walks of life. However, this is not the case for many students. Many are struggling to study, work and live, leaving little time to enjoy their surroundings or have a social life. The pressure of increased university fees and the reduction in student grants, alongside the issue of exploitative landlords and contending with living without the support network of a family close by, has meant that students are now worse off than ever, and this is causing them to suffer with mental health issues.
These are then compounded when students see a poor economic outlook for the country affecting their chances to get jobs, and even if they can get a graduate job, wage depression has now meant that only a lucky few can afford to move away for a job. We are also currently saddling our young people with debt, with around £50,000 from tuition and maintenance loans; and even more from debts students may incur just through their daily lives.
That is why I am proud that the Labour Party has announced 2 key policies to support our young people, whether they are going off to university, taking a vocational course, or embarking on their career path.
- £10 MINIMUM WAGE FOR UNDER 18S
For many, leaving their parent’s home to attend university is their first experience of independent living. Often, the first-hurdle they encounter is a brand-new concept; budgeting. Presented with the prospect of balancing rent payments, food shopping, social activities and travel – students that don’t have a financial safety net – already contending with reduced budgets as a result of the Conservatives removing student grants, which we will reintroduce – are starting at a disadvantage. The situation is compounded every year by the poor operational service of Student Finance England – I’m sure many in the room who work in student services are all too aware of the precarious situation students who don’t receive payments on time are left in; relying on parents, friends or even insidious pay-day-loans to fill the gap.
If you are under 18, you don’t get a discount at the shop, yet it is acceptable for young people to be paid almost half of what is paid to colleagues who are over 25. People across the country are being priced out of accessing essentials such as housing and transport, and the current Minimum Wage system puts young people at even more of a disadvantage.
This puts an unnecessary burden on new students, one that we seek to address by raising the minimum wage for under 18s from £4.35 per-hour to £10 by 2020. Equal pay for equal work is not a controversial idea, is it? By extending the real living wage to all in the workforce, Labour will provide young people with the opportunity to earn more money before they go to university, earn more whilst they are at university, and ensure that they leave university with the ability to maintain an independent life if they wish, rather than being forced to return home because employers do not deem them worthy of equal pay.
- NATIONAL EDUCATION SERVICE
As I said earlier, university shouldn’t be about money; it should be about acquiring new skills, building new relationships and continuing what is hopefully a life-long journey in learning. This life-long journey is at the heart of our policy to introduce a National Education Service, free at the point of use and available to everybody, every age, everywhere.
When Labour first came to power in 1945, it sought to address what was identified as the great evils in society, Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and unemployment. It addressed Want through the extension of the welfare state through National Insurance. We addressed squalor by building homes for returning soldiers and creating rent controls, to ensure that homes were habitable and affordable. We addressed Unemployment through maintaining the nationalised industry of the war and ensuring that returning soldiers had jobs to go back to. We addressed Disease through the creation of the National Health Service, the crowning achievement of that Labour government, and one of Britain’s proudest achievements. A health service, free at the point of use for all who require it. The Labour party partly addressed “Ignorance” through the raising of the school leaving age, ensuring that secondary education was free and seen as a right for all, by building schools and removing fees from grammar schools.
But that hasn’t been enough. University fees have skyrocketed under the current government, the Education Maintenance Allowance was cut by the coalition, grants have been replaced with loans and last year saw the steepest fall in University applications for 30 years.
With the National Education Service, the Labour Party will repeat its achievement in building an institution seen as a right to all in this country, something which will support you no matter your age, your bank balance or where you live. We will overhaul the childcare system and halt the closure of Sure Start centres, invest in our schools and stop the vanity project that is academisation and the reintroduction of Grammar Schools. We will invest in Apprenticeships and Further Education, restoring the Education Maintenance Allowance and ensure that further education is available to all, to allow people to reskill or continue learning. We will restore Maintenance Grants for students at university, and we will abolish Tuition Fees.
I strongly believe these policies will ensure that we tackle the root causes of Mental Health issues for young people, and ensure that our country will continue to work for the many, not the few.
No one should have to pay to access education, and under Labour, we will ensure that you will be able to access education in the same way you can access health care: free at point of use, and available to all.