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Student life — For years now the politicians have given students the stick with reforms and admonitions. Now the politicians and pundits suddenly feel sorry for them. Studies show that students are not happy. But can Generation Stress believe that things will get any better, the author of this article asks, and recalls his own life as a slacker.
An unreasonable and insulting tradition dictates that each new year of students will get a label slapped on them. A superficial term which the outside world sticks on the whole group. So you know exactly what young people are currently like. At different times, young people have been curling children, millennials, fucked-up, snowflakes, generation selfie, or if it was me who had to choose this year’s label, generation stress.
Stress had a good year in 2018.
“When I spoke at the political festival on Bornholm last year, I asked why so many children and young people feel so bad. I have never received so many reactions to a political speech,” the chairman of the Social Democrats and head of the Danish political opposition Mette Frederiksen said on her website before the summer holidays.
They have done everything, and at the same time, we can see that they are hurting
Former Minister for Higher Education Søren Pind about the students
In her text, Frederiksen promises to fight an unhealthy culture of performance, just like she, at the political festiva,l chose to abandon a party policy that riled up the students: the cap on education programmes that prevents you from choosing a new degree programme if you made a mistake. The so-called grade bonus will also be abolished if the Social Democrats have their way. This is the rule that young people who rush from their upper secondary high schools into uni can multiply their grade point average by 1.08. Something which, of course, has resulted in admission requirements being pumped up accordingly.
Frederiksen has, with her statements, gone against several years of deadlocked policy that aims to make for faster, more focused students. And this is after, according to Sana Mahin Doost, chairman of the National Union of Danish Students, students for years have been labelled by politicians as spoilt when they complained.
The centre-right coalition government is also suddenly expressing their how much they care. “They have done everything, and yet we can at the same time see that they are feeling the hurt,” said Liberal Party politician Søren Pind in a farewell interview to the P1 radio station, after his turn as higher education minister in May this year. And Pind’s successor, the entrepreneur
Student chaplain at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) Inger Lundager confirms the impression. In a recent interview with the University Post she said that “young people today have grown up in a society where competition and performance are very important.” And many people inevitably see themselves as inadequate. And they are ashamed of these feelings of losing.
40.5 per cent of all women aged 16-24 years old are stressed.
For the young men it is about one in four.
Source The Danish Health and Medicines Authority’s health profile 2017
At the University of Copenhagen, more than every second student is often or very often stressed.
Source The Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM)
Tina Kaare was the University of Copenhagen’s student ambassador for four years until 2017, i.e. employed to provide impartial legal advice to students about problems in their study programmes. Today, she works as an independent coach for students, and in her hundreds of meetings with them, she has found that all types of students can run into problems during their studies. Lack of well-being is not just for students in specific subjects nor is it for the already vulnerable groups, she says.
“I do not know whether the problem has become worse, and by virtue of my work I meet precisely those students who are having a difficult time. But many of the problems that students bring to me, can be traced back to some kind of pressure,” says Tina Kaare.
The assessment of young people as being stressed is also supported by hard data. According to the Danish Health and Medicines Authority’s ‘health profile 2017’, especially young women between 16 and 24 are hit hard. In this group, 40.5 per cent are stressed, while for the young men it is approximately one in four. No other age group is more affected by stress. And the University of Copenhagen numbers are even worse: According to a study from the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs every second student is often, or very often, stressed.
We have landed in this trap, where the focus has shifted from content to points. Then the stress level increases
The small parties in the Danish parliament took the lead on student stress. Both the Socialist People’s Party (SF) and the Alternative Party proposed during 2017 to limit the use of grades, and SF has proposed to abolish the study progress reform, which has made it difficult for students to take a leave of absence and do their education programme at their own pace. SF was itself a key part in the agreement to implement the study progress reform just five years ago in 2013.
Even the Social Liberal Party, whose chairman Morten Østergaard pioneered the reform as higher education minister, has proposed rolling some of it back again. This reform had apparently struck too hard. Or, as the Social Liberal Party put it in a proposal from 2017: Pupils and students have “reacted inappropriately strongly against these initiatives.”
Inappropriately strong? Perhaps stress and lack of well-being are the most important points on the agenda at uni at the moment and in the students’ statements in the public debate. Still the politicians claim that the stress wave comes as a surprise. But I think I know why.
In the ‘health profile’ stress levels are measured by the commonly used Cohen Perceived Stress Scale, consisting of 10 questions about the extent to which you over the last four weeks have experienced your life as unpredictable, uncontrollable and burdensome, and whether you feel nervous or stressed.
The strange thing is that the two words unpredictability and uncontrollable would not have been associated with stress for a lot of us who started at uni 20 years ago. We had been predicated as the ‘generation fucked up’. It was then a virtue to embrace the unexpected aspects, to let the heart take control over mind. We learned this at school.
Flashback: I had two study mates at political science around the turn of the millennium, and we agreed that we would like to eat hot food for lunch. Our study meetings were always about hot lunch. And when there was an exam, we calmed our nerves and calibrated our focus with a whisky and a simple song from a Christian scout campfire songbook:
Thin as a stick/
Round like a ball/
Or in between (hand clapping)
We sang. And the chorus was:
You are you, and you are OK/
You are you, and you are OK/
You are you, and you are OK/
Because you fit into God’s plan.
And then a shot and an exam.
And, yes, behind it all were periods of existential student perplexity, which sometimes was even stressful when it was accompanied by heartache or temporary financial ruin. But it was not worse than it could be repaired with hot pasta bacon in cream sauce with carrots and zucchini.
And there was a plan B. There was time for a plan B. And the co-housing flats were still cheap.
My generation was exposed to an ideal of being laid back.
The point is, that it was a time when many of the heroes were dropouts or disconnected ironists. Types like the laid back but endearing dude in the Coen brothers’ ‘The Big Lebowski’ from 1998, or the young man in Jakob Cedergreen’s Danish film Voksne mennesker (2005), or the period’s archetypical indie rocker, a pessimistic, but self-satisfied observer of a life that only idiots live in a way that is structured by Capital. In short: My generation was exposed to a sedate ideal.
And of course, there were always some of us that quietly did their careers and who now make all the decisions in our society. And, of course, the slacker ideal was a convenient excuse, which the adults could use to let the young people who in fact did drop out, drop out. Tough.
The current political leaders were born about the same time as me. So I can certainly understand if it has taken a long time for them to see the stress ambulance rushing towards them over the horizon. Which of course is no excuse for what happened.
Taking care of students is something new in Denmark.
The student counselling service has been intensified on many levels, and good education programmes have been a strategic goal in the university’s annual plans in line with quality of research.
These priorities did not exist in the evil days of yore. Because they were evil, albeit in a manner that is not really possible any more, because there is no time to let the evil unfold itself due to study progress requirements.
People would be thrown out of uni today, before the evil happened. The endless master’s thesis swamp has been drained. But if you want to recall it, read the author Jan Sonnergaard (1963-2016), who wrote so chillingly about the student ghosts that spend aeons at the old south campus KUA facility in the 1980s and 1990s.
64 per cent of the students in the humanities and 86 per cent of those in the health sciences completed their at six-year term of study in 2017.
13.4 per cent of the first-year students stopped at UCPH in 2017 compared with 18 per cent in 2007.
Sonnergaard was at the same time a fun writer, but when the University Post for an article once asked him to recount a hilarious experience at UCPH, he had a grand total of zero fun experiences to share:
“There was nothing fun about being in that place during these years. There was no more than just tragicomic, grotesque events. Cold grotesque,” he said.
And maybe it was even more evil in the generation before Sonnergaard. The dropout rate in the 1950s and 1960s was certainly large, even though it did not have the attention of the politicians. In a statistical yearbook from these years, you can see that only about 10 per cent of students in these decades took their final exam within six years after starting. Many of them quite simply never finished.
What happened to them? Were they stressed during this period before their academic ambitions were abruptly crushed? Or did they simply smurf their away out to some kind of salaried work with no need for foundation in an exam certificate?
Today the vast majority of students complete their studies within six years. At UCPH in 2017, 64 per cent of students from the humanities and 86 per cent of those from the health sciences did so. There are still dropouts. 13.4 per cent of first-year students stopped at UCPH in 2017 compared to 18 per cent in 2007.
This is a success. But when we talk about student life now, we talk about failure. About perfectionism, grade hunting and grade inflation, lack of well-being and of course stress. It’s a 90s-style ironic paradox.
All this taking care of young people. It is not the same. While the left wing places the responsibility for the stress wave on the reforms to education – reforms that it for the most part instigated itself – and on society’s performance requirements, right-wing politicians highlight instead how young people are responding to external pressures, their poor ability to prioritise, and their parents’ poor upbringing. These are important differences, because it determines whether it is society, or whether it is the students that have to change.
According to Minister of Education Merete Riisager (LA), young people strive to be perfect. In fact, she says in an interview with the media Altinget, the young people place little emphasis on their actual performance, but on how they appear.
“In a performance culture, you credit those who do well. It is a culture where you challenge students to do their very best. It can be about doing well and challenging themselves. We have no real performance culture relative to virtually all other countries. But we have a culture of perfection, and this is much worse,” says Riisager. She blames the parents of young people for the fact that the young people don’t care about reasonable things.
And according to Riisager’s colleague, Minister for Higher Education Tommy Ahlers, the main problem behind student stress, is they are not robust enough. In his inaugural interview with the newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad the Minister for Higher Education makes it clear that his cure for stress is not the traditional de-stressing, understood as less work pressure. Because:
“My experience is that the cause of stress, is not so much the pressure and the high standards.” He refuses to let the students off the hook. : “We can’t just give the students two more months to finish, and then it’s done,” he says, and adds that he also wants to “send a signal to them that they should spend time on their studies.”
Tommy Ahlers has also (in an interview with deadline on DR) introduced an interesting distinction between stress (which is bad) and pressure (which is good). And pressure sounds better. Good things come out of pressure – like sausages and diamonds. They would not exist without constant pressure. Yet pearls come out of oysters when you stress it with a grain of sand. Maybe stress is good too?
Stress management with the two ministers is a requirement to resist the need for perfection and to stand up to the pressure of life and political reforms. But according to the chairman of the National Union of Danish Students (DSF) Sana Mahin Doost, the students’ core task should not be stress management. She would prefer to set new terms and conditions for student life, she says.
The system has been a system of perfection, where errors are not accepted, and that is where we need to take action.
Sana Mahin Doost, Chairman of the National Union of Students in Denmark (DSF)
“The word robust is abused. I believe that the programmes and communities need to be robust enough to be able to help us when we fall,” she says. “We have spent many years getting the recognition that there is a problem with the lack of well-being among young people. Not many politicians and pundits have been willing to acknowledge this. But more and more now say they do. And this is great. Yet there is a tendency to place responsibility on the individual, and says that it is the young people themselves that are too focussed on perfection.”
“But you have to look at the circumstances of young people’s lives today,” says Sana Mahin Doost. She reckons that it is not a solution to say it is okay to fail, when the reality of the labour market is, that it is not.
“Right now, the politicians are queuing up to say: You will be OK! I have failed too, and it’s OK to fail. But words are not enough in this context. If your grade in physical education determines whether you can get into your dream study programme, you cannot just relax, and fail. They don’t recognise that there is a performance requirement and do not recognise the facts. If you fail an exam, you risk getting kicked out. You can’t just fail. The system has become a system of perfection, where they do not accept errors, and this is where we need to take action
These kinds of systemic problems are something that Professor of Organisational Psychology at Roskilde University Steen Visholm knows a lot about. He traces the ever increasing stress levels back to the changes in the universities themselves. They have moved away from a work form that was oriented towards a calling, where ardent researchers were really interested in what they were doing – intrinsic motivation, he calls it – to now, where it has become a game where you have to get points through all kinds of different ways, like when a researcher has to get his name on as many articles as possible.
“This has spread to the world of students, where quantitative targets have become more and more prevalent, and it has become something akin to a sport to go through a programme of study,” says Steen Visholm. “As an instructor you need to complete more and more forms, and complete activities organised in a way that give students a score. It takes away all sense and meaning from what you do. And when you experience requirements that do not make sense, this leads to stress. We have landed in a trap, where the focus has shifted from content to points. Then the levels of stress go up. This is a structural problem.”
You should drop all these study progress reforms that seem to be meaningful from the point of view of the finance ministry, but which do not fit into individuals’ life stories, says Steen Visholm:
“You need to tone down the formalistic, game-like nature of the university. Then people will be intrinsically, and not extrinsically, motivated . In the Ministry of Finance they are discovering that people are not only motivated by things like money, but also by something that the psychologists have known for a long time, making a difference for other people,” he says.
“We have lost a good deal of the motivational energy for many years by only focusing on the measurable aspects. They have calculated the value of study programmes based on where the students can make the most money. But this is a one-dimensional measuring criterion, where there should be meaning instead.”
The university is only a small part of society. But a diagnosis of our times can be extended. It is characterised by competition and quantity rather than meaning. Well-known in Denmark is Ove Kaj Pedersen’s characterisation of Denmark as a competition state, where the citizens are put in the service of the economy. Even the description seems stressful.
Another interesting viewpoint can be found in the literary scholar Mikkel Krause Frantzen, who in a book based on his PhD dissertation from UCPH simply diagnoses our times as ‘depressed’. Frantzen draws a picture of how our happiness as human beings has been merged into the economy. There is now a cultural norm for citizens to be positive, enthusiastic and happy. They need to, you could say, perform happiness. Mikkel Krause Frantzen even says in a featured comment in the newspaper Politiken, that the requirement for happiness is the moral order of the present.
He gives an example of this requirement for happiness in quoting a passage from Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia. The depressed young Justine is met with a requirement to be happy from her brother-in-law John, who has paid for her wedding party. It is easy to read the scene as a compressed version of the contract between society, which offers education and SU study grants, and the students who have to perform for the money:
John: “Do you realize how much this party cost me? Just a guess?”
Justine: “No. Should I?”
John: “Yes, I think so. How much money? A lot of money. A fortune for most people”.
Justine: “Just as long as you think it was well spent”.
John: “It depends on whether we have a deal”.
Justine: “A deal?”.
John: “Yes, a deal. That you are happy”.
Justine: “Yes. Of course we have a deal. ”
The left-wing and the student politicians (which in this context are the left wing) want to change the conditions for young people, while the right-wing politicians want to change the students’ attitude. Both approaches are based on what looks like real care for the students. Something that in itself may be celebrated as a breakthrough in academia. And maybe both approaches have something to be said for them?
According to the former student ambassador Tina Kaare, you cannot remove the stress by snapping your fingers.
“I do not believe that there are quick fixes that will remove students’ pressure and stress,” says Tina Kaare, who encourages the individual to ask themselves a question. Will you be one of those who forever walks around with a book, so that any short break is used to learn a little bit extra? Or can we afford to believe that it also, in the long run, pays to let your own and the university’s sportified requirements go. Maybe try and enjoy life in the years when you also happen to be studying?
“The question is whether you have the time not to do it,” she says.