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Comment: Who will help the students with mental breakdowns?

In the future, I hope that students will have time for reading, and not just skimming their books, writes humanities PhD student

The governments’ study progress plan has, understandably, led to students’ protests. After 79 students gatecrashed an undisclosed meeting in the University’s Education Strategic Council last Thursday, Prorector Lykke Friis acknowledged that the leaked memo was written under time pressure. She said that ‘we cannot sit down and decide that we will not follow the rules adopted in Parliament.’

This from Lykke Friis is symptomatic of a hurried, stressed university where ‘time pressure’ is a constant companion for everybody and where the university leadership lacks will – or courage? – to question and criticize the new public management massacre on scientific integrity which has been going on for the past years and which is currently culminating.

The purpose of the study progress plan is to force the students to complete their studies at a quicker pace and thereby, the government believes, to save DKK 2.2 billion by 2020. Judging by the response of the university leaders, the current chain of command in Denmark leaves the university no other possibility than answering with a ‘Yes, sir!’.

Good at skimming, at least

The university lets the students down by embracing the plans without involving the students’ opinion at all. The underlying message of the study progress plan is that the average student is guilty of laziness and inefficiency.

I am not saying that nothing could or should be done to encourage students to finish their studies faster (if it really is as important as they say). The Faculty of the Humanities has answered the demands from the Ministry of Education with an 11 point plan which contains many good ideas. However, the inflexibility of the study progress plan makes no distinction between the reasons for ‘trailing behind’ (one of the deadly sins of the 21st century), be it trainee work, intensive language practice or more time to digest knowledge.

I hope that students will have time for reading, and not just skimming books, in the future university.

The flagellant’s mantra

The study progress plan nourishes an already established university culture which focuses more on quantity, productivity and time efficiency than on ideas, depth and creativity. Of course streamlining, economizing and tightening up is often a rational and wise approach but the study progress plan’s attempt to regulate student behaviour and capacities is at best naïve and at worst reminiscent of Soviet five year plans.

I fear for the quality of the students’ education. But most of all I fear for their psychological wellbeing. Ph.D. students break down in great numbers. Most of them are conscientious and take their work extremely seriously. Ph.D. students are under a lot of time pressure, which often conflicts with their sense of responsibility for the quality of their work. I know many Ph.D. Students who have or have had serious stress symptoms. I myself am a part of this sad statistic.

Before my stress breakdown, at the end of every single working day, a mantra kept sounding in my mind: ‘I haven’t worked well enough today, I haven’t worked long enough today, I haven’t worked efficiently enough today,’ even on days when I had accomplished a lot. This flagellant mantra was not exactly conducive to creativity. I felt there was no time to take even a minor step in the wrong direction. Consequently, there was no time for following crazy new ideas that might or might not prove important.

I am the lucky one

I have been lucky. I have regained my spirits, my creativity and my zeal for work. The Human Resource Department at the Faculty of Humanities is used to deal with Ph.D. students suffering from stress. I have received free psychological support from the University and, being organized at the Danish labour market, I have received financial support (I haven’t dared to calculate how much I have cost the Danish society).

But who is going to help the students who will have mental breakdowns?

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