Turning adult students into cotton-wool kids

Mollycoddling universities seem more interested in helping students make friends than in educating them.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams
Columnist

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The current academic year may now have slowly ground to a halt, but at many universities preparations for inducting the next cohort of students have been underway for months. The traditional ‘freshers’ week’ of spontaneous alcohol-fuelled partying, puking and snogging is a thing of the past. Now, university ‘Welcome Weeks’ are a sleek and organised affair, some beginning well in advance of the start of term.

At Salford University, students can ‘Get a taste of student life before you move!’ with a weekend stay in a hall of residence where ‘there will be plenty of Domino’s pizza and we will put a movie on for you’. If this sounds more like a 12-year-old’s sleepover than a university induction initiative, that’s because the focus of all such events seems to be upon making friends. Salford University offers soon-to-be freshers ‘pre-induction tutorials’, one of which is ‘about meeting people and making friends when you first start at university’. Nottingham Trent University advises that ‘there are lots of ways to make new friends’, and even provides a helpful list.

Of course, meeting new people and making friends is an exciting part of being a student, leaving home, and studying a subject alongside people who share your interests. Universities have a particular view of friendship in mind, however; this is less about students bonding over a shared experience of sneaking into a gig for free and more about setting up peer-support networks.

Nottingham Trent says making friends is important because ‘friends make a huge difference. You can share your great experiences with them and they can help you get through the not-so-great times, too.’ Manchester Metropolitan University similarly advises: ‘When you first arrive in halls or at a class, it can feel daunting… but just remember: everyone’s in the same boat, so make sure you try and get to know as many people as possible in your first few weeks.’

At Aston University, this friend/peer-counsellor relationship is formalised: ‘During Welcome Week, second- and final-year student volunteers, the famous “Aston Aunties” (male and female), will provide a friendly face to help guide you around the university, show you the sights and answer any questions you may have.’

Universities, in showing such concern with student friendships, are taking a lead from a Higher Education Academy (HEA) report, Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a Time of Change. The HEA is a government-funded (through UK HE funding bodies) organisation, designed to ‘promote excellence in learning and teaching in higher education’. This particular HEA report from 2012 promotes the idea that ‘at the heart of successful retention and success is a strong sense of belonging in HE for all students’. The definition of ‘belonging’ that the HEA evokes focuses upon ‘students’ sense of being accepted, valued, included and encouraged by others’; the number one means of achieving belonging is through ‘supportive peer relations’.

The relentless institutional promotion of friendship, then, is not about universities wanting new students to enjoy themselves but rather wanting them to stay at university and pass their degree course.

It would be strange if universities did not aspire to student retention and academic success, particularly at a time when each student brings in £9,000 per year. The HEA report is explicit about this: ‘When a student leaves an institution before completion [of their degree]… this represents lost income… which cannot easily be replaced. A residential student would represent lost income in the region of £33,300.’ The promotion of friendship is perhaps a more subtle way of protecting the institutional bottom line: universities that seek to ‘maximise both their students’ happiness and their future success’ are likely to fare better on the crude measure of satisfaction that is the National Student Survey – the results of which feed into most university league tables.

There is more to institution-organised play-dates than not-so-subtle marketing strategies, however. Universities are responding to a genuinely perceived sense of their young charges being vulnerable and needing support to negotiate the changes involved in moving away from home for the first time and ‘transitioning’ from school to university. No longer is it considered good enough just to let students work things out for themselves. A report published last month by the EU Commission on Higher Education recommends that ‘higher-education institutions and national policymakers, in partnership with students, should establish counselling, guidance, mentoring and tracking systems to support students into higher education and beyond’.

This plays out at an institutional level. For example, Nottingham Trent boasts: ‘We have developed an extensive range of support services and contacts to cover every eventuality and issue you may encounter while at university.’ With so much support in place, it begins to sound like potential students are set to negotiate a war zone rather than just a university.

There is a desire by universities to cushion students through every part of university life: to arrange their friendships; protect them from loneliness; inculcate a sense of belonging; make them happy; prevent them getting lost; and offer counseling for any stresses that may (inadvertently) occur. The problem with so much support is that it can completely debilitate students, preventing them from making their own decisions, and, importantly, making the mistakes necessary to grow up. Learning how to negotiate relationships, how to look after yourself, how to find your way around a new town – even learning how to order your own pizza and put your own movie on – are essential life skills, and universities do students no favours by sheltering them from such rites of passage.

In an ideal situation, students would not need an elusive sense of belonging to be manufactured for them. Rather, they would find it through embarking upon a joint intellectual project with academics and peers. If the university was a true ‘community of scholars’, then the shared desire to dig deeper into a particular subject would form a collective enterprise that was genuinely bonding. The current very formal, top-down attempt to foster a sense of belonging for students, right down to the construction of their relationships with each other, speaks volumes about the intellectual vacuum at the heart of many universities today.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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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