A young man in his early twenties fell to his death from the 6th floor of the University of Auckland OGGB business building during the exam period recently. Not long after it had happened, news about the death spread throughout the student body at the university along with other shocking stories of two other deaths which occurred in the past two weeks.
After hearing of the deaths of these fellow students, I was taken back, but at the same time not so surprised. Many people have been saying that suicide is weak and selfish, especially in a public space. However, I felt a great deal of empathy for these students. We all feel sorrow for their family and friends at their suffering and loss.
After just recently completing the last ever exam of my degree over the course of five years, I have been struggling and sinking into depression over what I really want to do with my life.
I felt like a sheep, following the rest of the society, stuck at an institution, studying and being assessed over something I had completely no interest in, rather than being able to explore my options and realising that there is a much larger world out there, and that university is not everything.
This incident reminded me of the painful dark moments of exam periods and work pressure during my university life. Many students feel these as they get trapped in the ‘degree factory.’
Today, I feel that the general system of university has become a dangerously normalised routine, of which students enrol for university for the sole purpose to obtain a degree, just to be able to get a job, regardless of whether they enjoy the subject or not. Although there are many students who actually enjoy university life, and study their passion, it seems that the university is severely lacking in a sense of student community. The institution becomes more and more corporate – and the experience becomes more and more one of ‘consuming’ an education – so there is not the community of support there to help students who are feeling lonely and vulnerable.
This is not to mention the societal pressure inducing fear of failure in life. Coming from an Asian background, I am very well aware of the overly competitive Asian culture, where failing to get accepted into a university or not getting ‘adequate’ grades is frowned upon and looked down on by society. It becomes survival of the fittest. For instance in South Korea, suicide rates among youth are higher than auto-accidents. Many students at a young age are forced to think in this manner where without a degree, it is close to impossible for becoming successful in life. This concept spreads, and brainwashes the youth, putting extreme pressure on their lives.
University should be about encouraging and helping students to find their passion, discussion among peers and lecturers, and gaining knowledge, rather than just turning up to a lecture, writing down some notes and doing assignments, tests and exams for grading & assessment. There is lack of a sense of culture and individuality.
The university system has become commercialized. It has become a business, rather than an educational institution.
The administrative system sets the priorities of the university, rather than having an academic council or some form of student community. Individual students are customers, a form of human capital where the aim of the university has become promotion of itself as a brand. For instance, universities are ranked to which university has higher brand recognition and worth investing in (enrollment). This ranking system has a significant element of consumerism.
An educational institution should be where people are able to explore their options and plan out their degrees without the fear of high course fees, the mountainous debts from student loan, students becoming intimidated by the courses, lack of guidance and assistance, failing the papers, then the fear of repeating the courses and spending another whole year at university.
There is also the problem of homogenisation of the tertiary teaching process. This system fails to recognize that people have lots of different ways of learning and different ways of using their brains. However, the university caters to a fixed kind of learning and testing, which is unjust for many students with different abilities.
It is unclear why those students decided to take their own lives. During the exam period, though, I’m sure many fellow students felt intensifying anxiety and pressure, their judgement becoming clouded by the highly emotional state of worries and fears, rather than being able to think calmly and logically, and realizing that there is far more to life than a university degree. We do know that there are woefully few services for students with these problems and what mental health services there are go underutilised.
We need an education system that focuses on developing human potential, cooperation, and creativity, not one that works off competition, consumerism, and individual alienation. Students should be encouraged to get as much out of life as possible.