Nicole Wallace from the School of Social Sciences at the University of Auckland shares a powerful story about studying for a tertiary degree with a mental health condition, highlighting the importance of public tertiary education for people with mental health and social needs.
Completing a tertiary degree is challenging under the best circumstances. Completing a tertiary education when you have a serious mental health condition is exponentially more difficult. As someone who has a chronic form of such a condition, much of my energy is taken by the challenges of negotiating life in general; it is difficult to explain the amount of work I still put into completing everyday tasks, years after my worst symptoms subsided. In addition, mental health conditions bring up particular problems for study.
Ever had the experience of looking at a note you’ve written and not recalling any of the information in it, let alone writing it? Try that for an entire course.
Despite these challenges, I now have a Master’s degree. Crucial to this achievement was the pastoral care I was given by university staff. My university’s disability services supported my access to health and social needs and I was given administrative support in seeking extensions and late deletions.
Most importantly though, was the time academic staff spent helping me negotiate the realities of my world. I received countless hours of support, from going over work I had missed due to episodes of illness, to discussing how to break my work down into even smaller and smaller components in order to get some movement during difficult times. It wasn’t all practical advice – much of the time, what I needed was someone to listen and appreciate the additional struggles I faced in university study.
Giving this pastoral care did not benefit my lecturers, supervisors or university under the current funding model. Time spent mentoring me did not count towards anyone’s PBRF and did not lead to any journal publications or external grants. But it was necessary for me to be able to complete my degrees up to Masters level.
I now have full time professional employment at the university I studied at. This is pretty good, considering it once looked like my health would prevent me from being able to manage full time work, or at one stage, complete high school.
This is why the Education (Tertiary Education and Other Matters) Amendment Bill, particularly Section 159NA, concerned me. Increasing the pressure on public institutions to compete for their funding threatens all those things that enabled me to graduate and enter the workforce full time. Academics who need to focus on driving resource funding have less time to give pastoral care to any students, let alone demanding ones. If services need to be slimmed down, it is those that are not essential to all students that are more readily done away with.
While the current government claims that this bill will not result is unwarranted cuts to public tertiary education, even the retention of the funding status quo isn’t good enough. The pastoral care I received was necessary, but it was not sufficient for me to graduate.
Disability services were stretched, so limited in their ability to assist people with mental illness beyond bureaucratic issues and immediate basic needs. Whilst staff were highly sympathetic, there was no positive framework for studying with a mental health condition. People were full of well meaning, but completely impractical advice. There was no mentoring system where I could learn from the experiences of those who lived with mental illness and academia. I had to figure out how to manage my studies in a way my condition allowed largely by myself, which took even more of my limited energy away.
Ultimately, if it hadn’t been also for my highly supportive, middle class family, I would have likely dropped out of tertiary education early on – like many people trying to study with similar conditions.
New Zealand likes to think of itself as a society where people from all sectors of a society have access to tertiary education. The experiences of many students with mental illness show that this is not the case. The public education system needs to do better if tertiary education is to be truly accessible. We need to free staff time from the pressures of competitive funding and dedicate more resources to helping people with mental health issues realise their potential. The Education Amendment Bill would have moved us further away from that aspiration.