Campaigners link tuition fee hikes to surge in counselling for students
A surge in students at top universities using mental health services is linked to the hike in tuition fees, it has been claimed.
More than 43,000 students had counselling at Russell Group institutions in 2014/15, figures obtained by the Press Association revealed - compared to 34,000 three years earlier.
The 28% jump coincides with the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000.
At the University of Edinburgh, there was a 75% increase in students accessing counselling services between 2011/12 and 2014/15.
While Cardiff University saw a 72% rise over the same period.
Stephen Buckley from the mental health charity Mind said that tuition fee and student loan debt were "major contributors" to the rise in students seeking mental health help.
Commenting on the findings, he said: "Today's students face an unprecedented financial burden with student loan and tuition fee debt higher than ever before.
"On the other side of this is the financial stress and uncertainty around employment on graduation.
"Both of these are major contributors to mental health problems like anxiety and depression."
It was "unlikely" that the rise simply reflected greater openness around mental health, he added.
The National Union of Students (NUS) urged universities to take the findings seriously.
Shelly Asquith, NUS vice president for welfare, said: "The evidence is clear, the marketisation of education is having a huge impact on students' mental health.
"The value of education has moved away from societal value to 'value for money' and the emphasis on students competing against each other is causing isolation, stress and anxiety.
"It has also forced institutions to compete aggressively against each other and put more money into advertising initiatives than student support services. NUS is urging the sector to take these statistics seriously, and consider an urgent review of the level of funding given to mental health services, particularly counselling."
The most commonly cited reason for attending counselling was "anxiety", according to the available data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
More than 6,000 students were reported to have anxiety but many universities were unable to provide a breakdown of the problems presented at counselling sessions.
Student numbers increased at Russell Group universities by just 3% over this period.
Clinical psychologist Dr Thomas Richardson, who has researched the link between mental health and tuition fees, said the figures were a "cause for concern".
He said: "Research has shown that financial difficulties such as being unable to pay the bills has an impact on mental health in students.
"There is also some evidence of a vicious cycle whereby financial difficulties exacerbate mental health problems, and these mental health difficulties can then make managing a budget harder still."
However, he cautioned that the rise may not be a "direct" impact of the hike in tuition fees, but could reflect a wider issue with students struggling with their finances.
Of the 24 institutions asked, only the University of Southampton recorded a decline in students accessing counselling services. They attributed the drop to the introduction of triage and an improved drop-in service.
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents leading UK universities, said: "Student welfare is an absolute priority for Russell Group universities, which is why counselling services are well-publicised and widely available.
"Our members invest heavily in pastoral services so students are able to access the support they need. These can range from drop-in surgeries and advice centres to Nightline services and professional counselling.
"The widespread availability of these services means that many of those who may be in difficulty are able to seek out help quickly."