Student welfare at the neoliberal university.

Victoria University of Wellington has been in the news of late. Firstly, due to a controversial rebranding exercise that will see the University spend thousands of dollars on the removal of Victoria from its name, and secondly for the eviction of a student on her return to the halls of residence following a suicide attempt. I had to read that last point several times myself, the eviction of a student from the halls of residence following a suicide attempt.

Given Aotearoa’s appalling suicide statistics, you might have thought we would be leading the field in working out ways to support young people with suicidal ideation, and you might also consider that our academic institutions, caretakers of thousands of young people who are significantly more vulnerable to mental distress, would be at the forefront of such efforts. Apparently not.

The student in question is Dani and she was evicted from Cumberland House in Wellington almost a year ago in October 2017. Her story first broke on the 24 September 2018 in Victoria University’s student magazine Salient. At that stage the response of the University was to state they could not discuss matters affecting an individual student, a position they refused to change even when Dani gave explicit permission to the University to discuss her case. Instead the corporate response from Rainsforth Dix, Director of Student and Campus Living, was that “our halls always operate in the best interest of the student and the hall community”. In a follow up item on Radio NZ’s Morning Report the editor of Salient, Louise Lin, expressed astonishment that the University had not simply apologised for its actions. In the same broadcast, Robyn McGill, past President of the Association of Counsellors said that the University had failed in its duty of care to Dani.

Radio NZ’s Morning Report programme went on to cover Dani’s story in some depth including the excellent video below.

Notice, how the Radio NZ reporter is stonewalled firstly by the Residential Hall Manager, then by the Director of Student and Campus Living who directs her to the University Communications Team who reply with a carefully controlled statement from Rainsforth Dix (the previously mentioned Director of Student and Campus Living), stating that:

  • The university has to weigh up the rights of individuals against the collective good of the hall community, and that
  • The hall manager stated that after a critical incident the university counselling service recommends a period of respite before returning to the hall, and
  • In this case, the hall environment was not considered conducive to the student’s recovery.

What we are being treated to here is a case study in brand reputation management. On the 27th of September Radio NZ interviewed the University Vice-Chancellor, Grant Guilford, who argued that media claims that Dani had been “evicted” were inaccurate but that, occasionally, the university had to “insist” that a student leave when they did not want to. Presumably, the point about eviction the VC is trying to make is that no legal proceedings were involved. However, as most of the listening public will have concluded, the distinction is irrelevant.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the particulars of Dani’s case, is a period of respite before returning to a hall really best practice? Does a return to the family home make sense? A recent survey of student mental health, undertaken by the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations, found that the majority of students were living with friends (35%), 18% with parents, 15% with partners, 15% in halls of residence, 11% with strangers and the remainder in other situations. The study was also able to identify that living circumstances can be related to different levels of mental distress. It found that those students who lived with parents or strangers had, on average, higher levels of mental distress. Not only that but family issues and responsibilities were identified as significant triggers for depression, stress and anxiety. The study explicitly stated that, “…living in halls of residence did not seem to impact students’ psychological distress significantly” (p. 107).

In other jurisdictions, the advice for best practice in these situations, is precisely the opposite of that promoted by the University of Victoria. A report on student accommodation drafted by Student Minds–the UK’s student mental health charity– highlights the positive and protective role that well-run student accommodation can provide.

In cases of self-harm, misconceptions about the severity of the issue could result in inappropriate drastic measures such as removing a student from their accommodation. Moving a student can be a risk, as they are likely to become isolated further. Social contact, integration in a community and support from peers are protective factors to a person’s mental health. All avenues of intervention and support provision should be tried before a student is moved. (p. 37-38)

Of course, this is not to argue that a return to the family home might not be beneficial for some students, but a policy that assumes a forced period of respite is best, in spite of the wishes of a distressed student accompanied by a father who supports her wishes, seems utterly inexplicable. How then are we to explain the actions of the University in not only evicting Dani, but in persisting with the view that they have done nothing wrong? What underlies their stance on responding to the suicidal behaviour of students?

Zero tolerance of suicidal behaviour?

The policy of recommending a period of respite is not included in the most recent 2014 version of the University’s policy on Responding to Suicidal Behaviour by Students although that policy does state that:

There are times when proactive and assertive positive action is required by the University, such as responding to suicidal behaviour by students. As such it has developed a policy of assertive and compassionate response to any form of suicidal behaviour by students and hall residents (emphasis added).

The statement about “assertive and positive action” and an “assertive and compassionate response” hints at a particular approach to suicidal behaviour. If so, is the University following the latest research on the best way to respond to suicidal behaviour? Perhaps not the latest research, but scrolling back through the last three iterations of its policy on responding to suicidal behaviour we arrive at the 2005 version which includes a statement about the University’s Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention Framework:

The Framework is based on and informed by the New Zealand Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy and a successful programme in the United States (Joffe, P).

The latter reference is to a US programme designed by Paul Joffe for the University of Illinois. This highly controversial programme adopts a zero tolerance approach that places responsibility for suicidal behaviour firmly on the student. The policy includes a standard that “expects and encourages students to maintain a reasonable concern for their own self-welfare”.  Suicidal behaviour–including suicidal thoughts, threats or attempts–are considered to be a breach of that standard. All staff and students are expected to report such breaches to the University suicide prevention team. The suicide prevention team assess the reports and, where found to be credible, mandate the student to attend four sessions of professional assessment. The purpose of the sessions is to “provide the student with resources to adhere to this standard in the future and to monitor the student’s willingness and ability to adhere to this standard.” The policy also states that failure to comply with mandatory assessment may result in forced withdrawal from the University.

The University of Illinois’ policy on suicidal behaviour has been assessed, along with several others, in a Yale Law School review by Marlynn Wei. Wei cites Joffe, the creator of the University of Illinois policy, describing his overall philosophy as follows (p. 30-31):

Traditionally, suicidal behavior has been seen as a mental health issue. Clinicians who meet with such students are expected to provide support and assist them in finding reasons to continue living. I would argue that the mental health culture is not nearly as effective at deterring inappropriate in-chargeness as the conduct and discipline culture. In this respect, the Suicide Prevention Program has far more in common with an office of conduct and discipline than with a counseling center.

Joffe goes on to explain the message communicated to students by the University of Illinois’ stance:

It is clear from your recent suicide attempt that you currently deem yourself to be in-charge of your continued existence. We are contacting you to inform you that we deem suicidal behavior to be an act of self-directed violence. Given the campus’s zero tolerance of violence, your recent behavior is unacceptable. As you may or may not already be aware, the university is in-charge of your continued enrollment as a student. If you persist in being in-charge of your continued existence, I will petition the Dean to exercise his in-chargeness over your continued enrollment and ask him to withdraw you.

Wei is critical of this policy and points out that mandatory assessment is not supported by most  mental health professionals, that the approach may deter students from reporting suicidal ideation, that there is no mediation process, and that the assumption that suicidal behaviour is always an attempt to gain control, rather than the result of mental anguish, is far too narrow and simplistic.

The 2005 version of the Victoria University policy makes no reference to zero tolerance, and does not make explicit the more extreme statements of Joffe. It does, however,  mirror many of the aspects of the policy of the University of Illinois including the statement that “The University expects and encourages students to maintain a reasonable concern for their own self-welfare”, a requirement on all staff to report suicidal behaviour to a Suicide Prevention Team and, if the team deems it necessary, a requirement on the student to attend four clinical assessment sessions. The policy has, of course, been updated since 2005 but remains very similar to the 2005 version. In the current version the reference to Joffe has been removed, reference to a Suicide Prevention Team replaced with the Counselling Service, and the requirement to attend four clinical assessment sessions replaced with the option that the Counselling Service may require the student to attend a single clinical assessment.

In Dani’s case, the issue is not that she was required to attend mandatory clinical assessments, or threatened with withdrawal from her studies. However, the point in tracing the origins of the University’s policy on responding to suicidal behaviour, and the philosophy of that approach, is that it may explain the paternalistic attitudes underlying Dani’s treatment, and the continuing refusal of the University to accept or acknowledge that a mistake may have been made. If students exhibiting suicidal behaviour are assumed to be in need of assertive interventions to exercise control over them, then this is a license to deny their agency as human actors, and perhaps to deny future attempts to seek redress for those interventions.

Authoritarian neoliberalism

Standing back from student suicidal behaviour for a moment, some of the issues here can be placed in the context of  broader trends in welfare services under conditions of neoliberalism. One common feature of neoliberal social welfare is to foreground individual responsibility for health, including mental health, and to brush aside evidence of its social determinants. Failure to take responsibility for your own self-welfare then becomes the focus of intervention, and the response is more likely to be a disciplinary one. As Nigel Parton argues, in the context of child protection policy, neoliberal welfare places greater emphasis on coercive paternalism:

Particularly in relation to the poor and marginalised it is argued that government should be directive, supervisory and disciplinary and that there needs to be a shift from a ‘nanny’ state to a ‘muscular’ or ‘authoritarian’ state. The link between neoliberalism and coercive interventions lies in the definition of freedom as a practice of efficient living that requires a certain inner discipline, so that those who fail at this freedom must be trained into it.

Although Parton is referring here to state child protection services, it is not surprising to witness the influence of authoritarian, neoliberal philosophies inside tertiary education institutions.

Other voices

Several professionals from the mental health field in Aotearoa have commented on the actions of the University.  We have already heard that Robyn McGill–past President of the NZ Association of Counsellors–considered that the University failed in its duty of care. In addition, Sean Robinson, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, commented that:

Evicting someone because they tried to kill themselves is wrong, young people under 25 experience the highest levels of psychological distress and have the highest rate of suicide. Rather than eviction Dani needed kindness and understanding.

Corinda Taylor, founder of Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust said:

If you look at a student who has a suicide attempt and they are being asked to leave the hall of residence it would feel to them like they are being rejected again in a time when they already feel that nobody loves them and that nobody cares.

We should also note that Grant Guildford, the University Vice-Chancellor was “disappointed to hear mental health professionals offering opinions when they have no knowledge of the individual case and have not contacted the University to find out what happened”. Yet in the same press release also states that “We cannot discuss individual cases”.

When students or workers are willing to take a stand, individually or collectively, against neoliberal managers, we shouldn’t be surprised when the managers mobilise the pubic relations machinery to close down debate, assert their truth, their control, and their dominance. Indeed, Radio NZ have found evidence of student voices being silenced.

As Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close we support Dani’s courage, and her actions to assert her own agency against powerful institutional actors. We stand with Dani in calling out the lack of compassion at the heart of the authoritarian, neoliberal academic regime. And we agree, wholeheartedly, with Ferguson when he argues that:

The priority for all of us who wish to improve our own mental health and the mental health of those around us is both to participate in collective struggles for more and better mental health services­–to support the shift back “from worry lines to picket lines”–and also to fight for a world where such services are no longer required. (p. 134)

He oranga o te katao, ko te wahenga o te katoa.

The wellbeing of us all is the responsibility of us all.


By Neil Ballantyne, Wellington Socialists.

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