In 2003, I was startled to hear the vice-chancellor of a UK university warning new staff that students admitted through its widening-participation programme would need careful attention because they have ‘emotional baggage’ that creates barriers to learning. Now, 10 years later, this type of sweeping and patronising claim, about students being vulnerable and in need of support, is no longer confined to so-called ‘non-traditional’ students.
All universities have become subject to what Kate Brown, lecturer in social policy at the University of York, calls a ‘zeitgeist of vulnerability’. At every level of study, it is increasingly common to hear privileged, high-achieving students refer to themselves as vulnerable because they are anxious, stressed and nervous. Welcome addresses to new programmes begin with empathetic assumptions about how anxious students must be feeling before outlining how much support is on offer. Not only do the life-changing possibilities of academic study come a long way down the checklist of induction topics - they have themselves become a source of vulnerability. In the book I wrote with Dennis Hayes, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, published in 2009, we quoted one university leaflet that tells students to seek counselling if new ideas and ways of thinking make them feel ‘uncomfortable’. These assumptions are now embedded in the everyday discourses and practices of universities and are hardly ever noticed, let alone challenged.
At the broader level of social policy, formal criteria to assess people as vulnerable encompass many social groups and a wide spectrum of risks and threats. As Ken McLaughlin observes in his book, Surviving Identity, the spectrum of people defined officially as vulnerable now ranges from those experiencing serious structural inequalities and disadvantages to those who are simply being prescribed counselling. But the identity of vulnerability now stretches far beyond formal categories: it is increasingly being claimed by individuals and groups, too.
Pre-empting students’ own perceptions, universities are rushing to offer them new ideas about vulnerability, advertising courses to deal with perfectionism and procrastination, manage stress, build resilience and assertiveness, and deal with relationship problems (including with dissertation supervisors). They have also established online cognitive behavioural therapy courses and produced guidelines for setting up student self-help groups and website advertisements for ‘beating the January blues’. Some universities are considering parental-support workshops and transition role-play sessions for students leaving university.
Vulnerability has become a popular topic for academic research in professional-development programmes. Research projects explore diverse psycho-emotional threats, such as being a non-traditional student or experiencing stressful forms of assessment, leading invariably to injunctions for more support, more awareness and more adjustments to teaching and assessment methods, as well as appeal procedures.