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History of Student Health

Mathew Thomson's lecture on the History of Student Health described his research into the rise in concern with the health of students after World War II. He recounted a turn towards social and psychological ways of understanding the population of students and the illnesses to which they were susceptible, suggesting that what had previously been educational, spiritual and moral issues dealt with pastorally became issues of health. This shift is consonant with a 'social medicine' being elaborated in the post-war decades, and focused on concern with higher rates of mental illness and suicide amongst students, as well as the particular strains of the learning and maturational processes occurring at university.

Concern with student health in this period coincided with an expansion of higher education; the Robbins Report of 1963 recommended that 1 in 3 of individuals aged 18-21 should go into higher education. The expansion of education threw into question the traditional pastoral system, and introduced a greater variety of kinds of students onto campuses. The rise in discourse about student health emerges, Thomson suggested, not from concerns about national efficiency (as in the case of discussions on student health in the first half of the 20th century, which underlined physical fitness), but rather out of the economics of an ambitious but stretched state. A concern with 'human wastage' – individuals failing to graduate - permeated discussions, and many involved in student health urged that the expansion of higher education could only take place if student health was invested in. Writers on student health, such as Nicolas Malleson, emphasised a particularly troubled and vulnerable stage of the life cycle that psychoanalysts such as Erikson discussed in the 1950s and 60s: late adolescence. Anxieties about the turbulent inner lives of students at this stage of life intersected with anxieties about their political agency, as in the student rebellions of the 60s.

From the 1970s, this discourse about student health waned; concerns about the particular population of students merged into a broader concern with youth health and behaviour; the student population became harder to conceptualise as a distinct medical entity. The modernist conception of a university with a single health service catering to the needs of its inhabitants becomes fragmented: the boundaries of campuses become more porous, with students living off-campus, and psychological therapies are diversified: a less integrated healthcare landscape is emerging.