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I am doing well at university, so why do I still feel inadequate?

ByPolly Smythe

Mar 29, 2017

If I asked myself why it was I wanted to be Editor-in-Chief of The Student, the good half of me would answer that it is because I love the paper and want to help keep it in print. The bad half of me would begrudgingly admit that I wanted to be Editor-in-Chief because someone I knew from school has started writing for The Telegraph, and that I felt jealous and wanted to compete with their success.

In fact, if I was being truthful, a lot of the decisions that I make stem from feelings of inadequacy and competition with the people around me. These feelings translate into my extra curricula activities, studies and friendships. I’m reticent to share essay and exam marks, because I don’t want to do worse than other people. I find it hard to celebrate friends getting internships, because I’m too busy worrying about whether or not I’ll get my own.

Feeling inadequate at university is something a lot of students experience, but can find it hard to articulate. Going from being academically successful at school, with high levels of interactions between pupils and teachers, to being academically average at university with little contact with tutors can be a shock.

These feelings of competition and inadequacy do not exist in a vacuum. Combining pre existing feelings of inadequacy with the increase in tuition fees has undoubtedly exacerbated the issues. Higher tuition fees have created a consumer culture where students ask not what they can do at university, but what university can do for them. Extortionate fees coupled alongside a shrinking job market for graduates turns course-mates into competitors. This is amplified in vocational courses such as law (my degree), where there is less ambiguity around which jobs everyone will be applying for once graduation comes, and so increased competition.

Alongside the tuition fee hike, ideology has its part to play. Neoliberalism preaches ideas of individualism alongside competition, encouraging us to treat university, and life in general, as one long episode of The Apprentice. Success has been brutally redefined, leaving little space for those who do not aspire to win. Neoliberal logic dictates that to be happy you must be rich, to be rich you must compete against others. One in five children up to the age of 10 say they “just want to be rich” when they grow up. Gone are aspirations of train drivers, astronauts and firefighters.

Another factor impacting on my happiness is social media. The opening and closing of my days is punctuated with a trawl through various social media sites. Increasingly I wonder, when we give our everything to social media; our illnesses, our breakfast snaps, our heartbreaks and our nights out, what is it that social media takes away? Writer Richa Kaul Padte writes of our online posts as parts of our ‘mythical selves’: happy, shiny, constantly on holiday, romantically involved, loved characters that we create for ourselves. Being surrounded by this constantly feeds into feelings of guilt, of envy and of inadequacy.

This pressure on students is universal, and evident at every level of the education system. In 2016, close to a quarter of a million children and young people were “receiving help from NHS mental health services for problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders”. A survey looking at mental health provisions at 24 of the top UK Universities found the number of students requesting counselling had increased from 34,000 to 43,000 in the space of three years. At Edinburgh alone, there were 1,629 people accessing counselling in 2011/12 and 2,852 between 2014/15.

I wonder what my life would be like if I was as concerned with being happy as I was appearing to be successful. I wonder if I will ever find myself adequate. I hope that I will.

By Polly Smythe

Polly is the former President of The Student, having previously been Comment Editor and then Editor-in-Chief.

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