Turning students into nervous wrecks

Why do we assume students are vulnerable? The vast majority aren’t.

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. 

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Once university counselling services were equipped to deal with specific emotional and mental-health needs, but now they have to deal with a range of formally and self-diagnosed mental-health problems. The rapid transmogrification of support services into a greatly expanded portfolio of wellbeing and learning support has also put strain on these services. Encompassing academic and study-skills provision, disability support, medical services, and teaching and learning development initiatives, a growing number of universities regard this portfolio as essential for better retention and achievement levels, and, of course, higher student-satisfaction ratings. 

Recently, the head of medical services at a leading UK university told me that new initiatives aimed at providing support for newly defined forms of vulnerability are growing by the day. The growing numbers of professionals in university counselling and medical services share the concern that this is stretching resources to the limit. They believe the vulnerability zeitgeist is becoming a bottomless, self-fulfilling pit of need that obscures real vulnerability and encourages students to deflect responsibility for managing mundane, everyday problems on to the institution.

In my research on the rise of emotional wellbeing and educational intervention, from early years through to higher education, I’ve learned that raising critical questions about these developments leads to allegations of having an elitist, uncaring disregard for students’ needs. It is important to make clear that I’m not suggesting universities should be indifferent to students’ anxieties. But unchallenged assumptions about vulnerability are also affecting the educational relationship between academics and students in worryingly negative ways.

Students should be able to express difficulties. But, intertwined with fear about student-satisfaction measures, vulnerability claims are pressuring academics to become more lenient and less challenging. Some are withdrawing modules, individual lectures and assessment demands that make students feel vulnerable to failure or exposure. Others are becoming cautious about exploring controversial or off-the-wall ideas, or merely pushing students to participate in seminars and answer questions. Students’ complaints that work given to them makes them anxious because it is ‘elitist’ (aka difficult) is making colleagues increasingly tentative and unsure

Third-year undergraduates in two different Russell Group universities have told me that casual claims of vulnerability among their peers are so common that not claiming to feel vulnerable is becoming a socially unacceptable form of difference. They report that vulnerability goes hand-in-hand with resentment about lecturers’ lack of support, which they blame for their underachievement.

There are a lot of things influencing the rise of therapeutic education, and not all of them are coherent. But there needs to be collective debate about the spread of assumptions about vulnerability and their effects on how we regard students. We need to find ways to differentiate between trivial and serious vulnerabilities and to isolate the vulnerability zeitgeist from universities’ instrumental and sometimes cynical systems aimed at promoting student satisfaction. This debate isn’t easy, when universities are becoming increasingly sensitive to any suggestion that they aren’t doing everything they can to ‘support’ students. But without challenge, assumptions that university life and education itself make students vulnerable undermine the fundamental purpose of higher education and divert resources from it.

Kathryn Ecclestone is professor of education at the University of Sheffield. An edited version of this article appeared in the Times Higher Education in January 2014. Her book with Dennis Hayes, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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