On a sunny morning in September I met my friend Ashley at a cafe near Holborn station in central London. I was about to start a new job at the London School of Economics (LSE) – the same institution where I had been a student over a decade earlier. LSE had been a wonderfully vibrant place to study. During the many years I had spent there as a student I remember feeling inspired by my professors, energized by the lectures I attended and excited by the diversity of the student population. After holding academic positions at the University of Oxford and King’s College London I was delighted to be returning ‘home.’
At the same time I was aware that LSE had changed a lot over the years. To begin with the university grounds looked completely different. The LSE campus had expanded and now boasted an impressive collection of new academic buildings. There were also many more facilities for staff and students, including cafes and study spaces, as well as a brand new Student Union building. In addition to these improved amenities, the way in which courses were taught had significantly changed. Nowadays everything was administered online and students could conveniently access all course materials at the click of a button. Reflecting on the endless hours I spent photocopying from the course collection at LSE’s Social Science Library (and all the paper cuts I endured in the process!) I wondered if today’s students appreciated just how lucky they were.
But the more I reflected, the more I began to question just how lucky today’s students really are. Alongside the sprawl of shiny new buildings, the improved facilities and the convenience of new learning technologies, the experience of being a student today is undoubtedly much more daunting than it was in my day. Tuition fees have nearly doubled and the job prospects awaiting graduates are few and far between. Beyond these factors are the added pressures of studying in the midst of digital distractions. Whether it’s checking email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or WhatsApp, today’s students are overloaded with information and constantly connected. As I recounted to Ashley the types of pressures students faced today, she made a suggestion that I will never forget: “Why not begin your classes with a mindfulness meditation or a breathing exercise – something to centre your students at the start of the class and get them to focus?”
The first thought that came to my mind was that this was a crazy suggestion. There was no way I could begin my classes with a meditation or mindfulness exercise. This was a university after all, not a yoga class! What would my students think if I began my classes in this way? Meditation was something that I practiced at home in order to prepare myself for the day ahead and the idea of bringing this technique to work with me was pretty much the craziest thing I had ever heard. So I tried to find a gentle way to express to my friend that her idea was a bit out there. Breathing techniques and mindfulness exercises were simply not something that academics did in their classrooms and I was not prepared to be labelled a hippy and become the laughing stock of the University! Ashley then asked me an important question, which stayed with me for several weeks after: “But do you think your students would benefit from this technique?”
It was tough to deny the growing body of scientific evidence in favour of meditation and mindfulness strategies. Breathing and centring techniques have proven to be one of the quickest and most effective ways to calm the nervous system and alleviate stress. These types of techniques could also be applied beyond the classroom and in that sense, if I were actually willing to incorporate this into my class, I would be giving my students a tool they could draw upon for the rest of their lives.
In recent years there has been a burgeoning interest in mindfulness and meditation techniques across the UK. This has led to the emergence of organizations like the Mindfulness Initiative – an advocacy project that works in conjunction with parliamentarians, the media and policy makers to increase awareness of how mindfulness can benefit society. In 2015 the Initiative oversaw the publication of the Mindful Nation UK report – the first policy document which seeks to address mental health concerns and enhance wellbeing in the areas of education, health, the criminal justice system and the workplace through the application of mindfulness techniques.
After my conversation with Ashley I began to do a bit of research on the extent to which meditation and mindfulness tools have been applied in higher education settings. What I learned is that despite the growing popularity of these approaches and their demonstrated capacity in alleviating stress, surprisingly few universities have started to explore how these wellness strategies might be utilised by students – yet there clearly is a need. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the number of students with a declared mental health problem has more than doubled from 8,000 to 18,000 over the past 7 years.
Reversing these alarming statistics will require a substantial investment in student wellbeing. It will also require more awareness of the fact that how students approach their studies is equally – if not more – important as the content of what they study. My initial resistance to Ashley’s suggestion is indicative of the extent to which this has been overlooked. While I have practiced meditation and mindfulness strategies over the years in my own time, after spending most of my adult life in the higher education sector the prospect of applying these tools in the classroom is something that had never even crossed my mind. It really goes to show the degree to which the academic path has diverged from the field of wellness. I am indebted to Ashley for her seemingly crazy suggestion and for inspiring me to bring two ostensibly incompatible worlds together. Not only do I now believe it is possible to build a bridge between academia and wellness, I believe it is essential that we find ways to do this.