OPINION: OPSEU college faculty strike is still causing stress for students

Matthew Frank


Failure is not an option for many Ontario college students.

After an OPSEU college faculty strike halted classes for five weeks last fall, students are hard at work trying to complete their winter semester — a semester which was shortened from to 13 weeks from 15 weeks — as successfully as they can.

You will not find unoccupied seats anywhere at Humber, which is currently bustling with students rushing to complete assignments, or get a little extra work in before the term ends. The hard work of students in this final semester shows they are capable and willing to do more to make themselves employable.

But, for some, the stress may be too much and the pressures of what students may expect from their courses or themselves is mounting, as signs of exhaustion have become visible in some students’ faces.

And, in fact, expectations surrounding education have become so great, they have almost spun out of control. On top of longer school days, students may be slogging through hours of homework, volunteer or work schedules, seeking internship placements and participating in extracurricular activities. Each activity may be a step on the ladder to advanced education, an enviable job and a successful and healthy life. Yet, according to student surveys, mental health problems have become more prevalent.

Nearly half of all students, based on a sampling size of 44,000 students, told the American College Health Association stress had an impact on their academic work. The survey was conducted on Canadian students in 2016, and showed, on average, nearly half of the sample size experienced a higher than normal amount of stress.

One of the reasons people may be reporting greater amounts of stress is that up to two-thirds of Canadians may not be getting enough sleep, according to a 2016 report from research analysis firm RAND corporation. A main reason behind this could be that, as common sense suggests and research shows, the more work people do, the fewer hours they are likely to sleep.

It should come as no surprise that in post-secondary academic accommodations for submitting work later or receiving more time on exams rose to around 143 per cent at U of T, for example, betwee 2009 and 2017.

This is no way to put full blame on the current education system because students have more support systems in place now than ever before. However, even modern support services can only stretch so far when mental health issues have become more pressing (or maybe people are more aware of them now). Even still, they may be issues better dealt with by the province.

With the Ontario Liberals looking to invest $2.1 billion into mental health services — as part of its final budget plan before the June provincial election — it’s obvious the province recognizes mental health is enough of a problem to invest money into it (only after 15 years, mind you).

However, it’s not just important the Liberals, or the next newly elected party, look at the effects of mental illness, but also at potential causes and what they can do for our modern education system.

While Ontario’s post-secondary system certainly has many positive traits and impressive achievements, it’s not without its own shortcomings. More attention could be given to assure students that degrees or certificates will lead to meaningful employment and to ensure that schools make key information more accessible, which might enable students to pursue the education they believe would be worth their time and money.

A change to the current education system might also remove some of the burden from educators who are hard at work, trying to work more material into the curriculum than they may have wanted to cover in the short time they are allotted. Reducing workloads could help alleviate some of the stress by giving students experience outside of normal classroom engagements.

And, contrary to the fear that easing up on the workload could lead to poorer work performance, psychology professor Laurie Santos at Yale University teaches a mindfulness course that ignores the pass/fail grading system. This has ultimately led to students getting better grades.

Thus, there may be new lessons to be learned here. In place of the race for grades, schools could be looking at how they can cultivate the potential of deep learning, a sense of purpose, and personal connection.

In place of a high stakes learning experience where passing and failing are key concerns for students, the modern education system could move toward how schools can not only teach, but foster healthy living as well.

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