Impact of College closures on Student Mental Health

Australian education sector has been rocked with the closure of bankrupt colleges. Closure of colleges has left over 2700 students and around 370 staff with an uncertain future. The news has raised issues of financial viability for a number of such education institutions that have mushroomed across Australia to provide education in vocational courses. A large number of oversees student from countries like India, China, Philippines enrol in these institutes seeing them as a gateway to a Permanent Residency in Australia.

When these colleges closed many students were on the verge of completion of their courses. Some other students had just paid their fees a few days prior to the close down of the colleges. Sudden and uninformed closures is likely to hurt them emotionally and would sully their dreams and aspirations for the immediate future. For students that come from a normal middle class background from India the loss of $ 7,000 is almost akin to losing a yearly income of the main family earner at home. Losing such large amounts while trying do the right thing through sweat and toil is a great mental shock.

A number of Indian students were enrolled in these colleges and are now facing an uncertain future. Such happenings cause unnecessary anxiety and stress among the students and their families. Depending upon a student’s personality such events can also lead to appearance of symptoms of adjustment disorder in the students as defined in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder – an authoritative publication on diagnosis of mental health problems published by American Psychiatric Association and used by Mental Health professionals the world over. Enough psychological evidence is available to show that such events can cause depression and anxiety. In some extreme cases they can lead to suicide too depending upon the coping strategies and the social support available to the individual. In my previous article “Why Students are committing suicide” I have already discussed how students find the going tough in Australia and sometime take the extreme step of suicide. Closure of colleges may possibly be the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

Although the government is taking steps to enroll students in alternative colleges and refund the loss of fees but the effect of closure will last for many months or years on those involved. The capacity in alternative colleges is constrained and they have to conform to capacity norms. They also therefore will only be able to enroll a few of the displaced students. Displaced students may have to therefore choose to wait till seats become available or move into alternative courses where seats may be available. Till the time the students get admission into these colleges they are likely to perceive their future as uncertain and doubt would plague their minds. Even after they have obtained admission, they will be doubtful of the continuity of their current colleges and fear of uncertainty. Many would exhibit symptoms consistent with symptoms of anxiety and stress.

A number of Indian organizations are trying to come to fore and help the distressed students. They are offering their services on a voluntary basis. While the role of such organisations is commendable, but given the strength of voluntary staff, they may just be touching the tip of the iceberge. Also these institutions lack the right counselling talents needed to support and assure the students. The Australian Govenment needs to intervene and open its compassionate arms to help and aid the students. The government should fund and provide for counselling to the involved students by registered psychologists and mental health counsellors. These counselling sessions may address issues of financial concerns, course selection, uncertain future, family concerns, anxiety, stress and other fears and phobias the students may have developed due to the incident.

This is the second instance of closure of colleges and the perception in some circles is that more institutes will close in future. It is necessary comparative performance of these institutions be available to public and students.. The comparison should be published online / in print. Even “The Senate’s Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee” report on “Welfare of International Students” has said in one of its recommendations that “TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency) and the national body to be developed for the VET sector adapt the registration process to develop a comparative information tool on education providers. This information tool should differentiate between the capacity of providers by comparing such things as the level and quality of support services available to students. The information tool would be made available on a relevant website”.

I would recommend that in such a publication information like facilities available, the size of teaching and support staff, courses offered, class sizes, year of establishment, placements of students, fees, country wise distribution of students and the financial health of colleges. The list should be easily accessible and understandable for the students. Publication of such a list should enable students to choose the right college for themselves depending on their decision criteria for selection. It would also reduce the chances of closure of colleges.

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