Stressing out students

Students are encouraged to experience university challenges as traumas.

James Panton

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Topics Politics

If you follow today’s discussions about higher education you might wonder why anybody wants to become a student these days. Being a student is often presented as a traumatic experience.

Students are seen to be crippled with such debts and financial woes that many of them need to take on paid employment in evenings or on weekends or during the vacations. A key argument against the introduction of tuition fees has been that young people will be put off university if they think they’ll have to take out loans or take on paid employment.

Students are perceived to be overworked and over-stressed. Richard Winter, professor of education at Anglia Polytechnic, argues that expecting students to write essays in only a few weeks at the end of a course is expecting too much: it gives too little time to do too much work and causes students to panic (1).

These stresses and strains have left increasing numbers of students feeling unable to cope with examinations and deadlines. Panic attacks and stress are common experiences, and often accepted as legitimate reasons for deferring exams and deadlines. At the same time, more students discover themselves to have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, which pits the whole higher education system against them – after all, we generally expect students to read books, to write essays, to present coherent arguments.

But there’s more. Before you even get to these financial, academic and stress-related woes, you have to get to university and try to settle in. The National Union of Students (NUS) website explains how stressful moving away from home and trying to make friends can be in their ‘advice to freshers’:

‘…loneliness can leave you with a sense of low self-esteem where you become self-conscious and feel you have been rejected, it is very difficult to overcome. You may be reluctant to even try and make new friends or take part in social activities, and will also find it difficult to say ‘no’ to things, leaving you feeling exploited and weak.’ (2)

It seems as if being a student is a pretty traumatic experience. But I’m not convinced that being a student is any more difficult or stressful than it used to be. In fact, I think that educationalists, policymakers and student organisations have come to expect far less of students. As a result, students expect far less of themselves.

Think about some of the above examples. First, it’s surely a good thing that higher education is no longer the preserve of a wealthy elite. But why do we think it beyond the capabilities of students to take on paid employment while studying? Whatever the merits or demerits of tuition fees, it’s a worrying situation when students are seen as unable to spend days in lectures and libraries and some evenings or weekends in paid employment. Worse still is that students think it beyond themselves.

It’s clearly the case that students suffer more from stress and illness than they used to. But the question we have to ask is, why? I think the problem here is that the framework of meaning through which difficult and stressful experiences are interpreted has changed. We expect people to be unable to cope, and as a result, they find it difficult to cope. We expect students to be traumatised by moving away from home, and increasingly it comes to be experienced as a trauma. As a result, rather than seeing examinations or essay writing as a difficult test, a test that requires you to struggle with and overcome your own limitations, these things are transformed into insurmountable problems.

Rather than pushing and challenging students to excel, we’ve increasingly come to flatter and patronise them. The idea of higher education as a process of guiding, stretching and challenging young minds, encouraging their intellectual curiosity and independence, seems to have been replaced by the task of guarding and protecting student’s self-esteem. Telling people that their work is terrible, that they’ve missed the point, or that their essay is incomprehensible, is out in favour of complimenting them on their ‘effort’ whatever the results. Criticising students and putting them under pressure is seen to be a dangerous threat to their sense of self.

This low expectation of what students are capable of is clear in the NUS advice to freshers. One of the most liberating and exciting aspects of going to university – moving away from home, becoming independent, making new friends, developing yourself as an individual – is presented as a traumatic experience which is likely to destroy your sense of self and leave you feeling weak and easily exploited.

This image is incorporated in new pedagogic techniques. Professor Richard Winter argues against the essay by claiming that it requires a style of writing and thinking which is ‘alien’ to many students who don’t have experience of higher education, and thus, the essay ‘disenfranchises’ these individuals. In place of the essay, Winter suggests, we should test students in other genres and styles – a ‘patchwork’ approach – maybe involving poster representations, a project proposal, of even a piece of fiction or a poem as a means by which students can express their ideas (3).

There is an odd motivation behind this challenge to the essay. The idea is that the essay is problematic because it is something ‘alien’, just as the experience of moving to university can be traumatic because it is an unfamiliar experience.

But this is an odd idea. University is unfamiliar – that’s the point. University education is a process which ought to take you beyond the world of familiar experience. It asks you to engage with concepts and ideas and frameworks of meaning which are beyond the commonplace – and the process ought to teach you to question the world around you, and to question and challenge yourself and your own limitations. If higher education doesn’t take you beyond your immediate experience – what’s the point? Attempting to make university more like your everyday and comfortable experience destroys the transformative potential at the heart of higher education. It is premised upon a pretty low expectation of what young people are capable of.

The transformation of universities into service-providers, and of students into customers, can only worsen the patronising attitude the higher education establishment takes towards its students. When the student becomes a consumer of education, the whole student-tutor relationship is transformed. Rather than the student as a supplicant who is out to prove themselves to the academy, they become a consumer who, if unsatisfied, will take their custom elsewhere. Thus the education process becomes a pre-packaged commodity. Academics become sensitive to the wants and desires of the student at their current stage of development, and the possibility of pushing students beyond that level is diminished.

It’s also clear that the same low expectations are at work in the transformation of universities into vehicles of ‘social inclusion’. The government wants 50 percent of young people to enter higher education, but it doesn’t seem interested in pushing them intellectually. Even the advocates of ‘inclusion’ who want to bring working class and disadvantaged young people into higher education do not seem to think that they are up to the challenge.

Rather, the criteria for admitting students, and the criteria by which their work is assessed, has become that of making the content of courses and the methods of assessment ‘relevant’ to their own immediate experience and ‘appropriate’ to their own current expectations of who they are and what they can do. Instead of pushing students beyond their own limitations, we flatter them as if they had already reached the highest standard of which they are capable.

I don’t think young people are really this pathetic. I think it is patronising and disastrous to suggest that they are. What is most worrying is that as educators, policymakers and even student bodies come to propagate this image of students, students have come to accept it. They expect education to be presented in bite-sized pieces. They become interested not in developing themselves, but in doing the minimum required to pass exams. They really experience academic life as too great a stress, its challenges and difficulties as insurmountable, and they accept all the excuses we offer them as a way out.

So what advice should we offer to young people considering or currently in higher education? Don’t be patronised. Don’t accept this image of yourself as a pathetic and vulnerable individual who can’t cope, whose self-esteem is under constant threat, and who defines themselves in terms of any number of problems beyond your control.

It’s obviously the case that students are not wholly responsible for the degeneration of higher education. But students could begin to challenge the degeneration of higher education by demanding a bit more.

James Panton is lecturer in politics at Exeter College and Carlyle Scholar in the History of Ideas at the University of Oxford. A shorter version of this article appeared in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Alternative to the essay, Guardian, 10 June 2003

(2) Combatting loneliness and homesickness, on the NHS website

(3) Alternative to the essay, Guardian, 10 June 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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