Issue 172: 2018 10 04: What are universities for?

04 October 2018

What Are Universities For?

Crèches or places of learning?

By Lynda Goetz

To howls of derision from some quarters and quiet approval from others, Manchester University’s Student Union this week banned clapping in favour of ‘jazz hands’; a silent waving of hands in the air, used by British Sign Language instead of noisy applause.  The reason for this is, apparently, that it is more ‘accessible’, as hand clapping can trigger anxiety amongst those with disabilities.

Earlier this month, as Freshers Week saw students starting or returning to their universities, Sam Gyimah, the Higher Education Minister, wrote to Vice-Chancellors urging them to focus on the ‘immediate’ challenge of student mental health.  The previous month he had gone as far as to say, in an interview with Centre Write Magazine, the following (in response to a question as to whether university staff should be responsible for the pastoral care of students): “I think the crux of this issue is that some traditional vice-chancellors see the prime purpose of their university as training of the mind.  This is no longer the case”.  This is a pretty extraordinary statement and if followed through to its logical conclusion spells the beginning of the end for university education as it has been understood by most of us for a very long time.

Manchester University student union

If, as he says, universities should be acting in loco parentis, why is it that in this country since 1970 the age at which the law regards us as adults was reduced from 21 to 18?  The age of majority does still vary from country to country, although most have now adopted 18.  There are, in many countries, a number of anomalies.  In the majority of Canadian provinces, for example, the legal drinking age is 19, although, as in this country, the voting age was lowered to 18 back in 1970.  In the US the legal age to purchase alcohol is 21.  However, the voting age in the United States has, since 1971, been 18 in all states.  The age at which a person is legally allowed to have sex in the UK is 16 and birth control is available to teenagers without reference to their parents.

None of these legal ages, of course, have anything to do with individual maturity, which can vary massively depending on all sorts of factors ; upbringing, responsibilities, character, culture and life events.  Nevertheless, if we are to allow individuals to marry at the age of 18, to have the vote at 18, to be considered responsible enough to drive a car at 17 and to conduct a private sex life at any stage throughout their teens, it does seem rather paradoxical that we should then be suggesting that they need university staff to be treating them as if they were still at school and acting in loco parentis.  Mr Gyimah went on to say that his views did “not mean infantilising students – it is about ensuring they have the right services available to them.”  The availability of services for mental health however is not, surely, simply an issue affecting students?  Why suddenly should the fact that some students suffer from homesickness and an inability to face adult responsibilities, like getting work in on time, change universities from being places whose ‘prime purpose is the training of the mind’?  (Of course there is the question as to whether Government actually wants them to be places for preparing people for the workplace, but that is another matter).

As with so many issues, this one about the purpose of universities is not simple (and cannot be explored in full here); nor self-evidently is mental health.  It is one thing however for student unions to focus on matters like noisy applause (student unions have traditionally had different priorities from universities) and another for Vice-Chancellors to be diverted from the main purpose of running their establishments.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines a university as ‘a high-level educational institution in which students study for degrees and academic research is done’.  Since Tony Blair’s misguided strategy to get 50% of all school leavers into university, many young people have found themselves pushed into something for which they are patently unsuited.  If academic learning is not really your forte and the thought of producing endless essays or spending hours in a library or a laboratory does not fill you with enthusiasm then, in spite of the ‘fun’, the constant round of partying and the prospect of spending three years amongst your contemporaries and pretty much ignoring the rest of the world (unless perhaps you are studying politics or economics), university is not really a wise choice; far better to get on with some form of specific job training or apprenticeship rather than running up huge amounts of student debt.

This is not to say that such students are the ones most likely to end up with mental health problems, (geniuses, as our Professor pointed out to us very early on, ‘frequently live on the knife edge between sanity and insanity’ – a status he didn’t think many of us were likely to be able to aspire to), but simply that the more people you put into any system, the higher the likely proportion of people with problems.  This should not divert from the purpose of a university.  Maybe the real issue is how many parents are adequately preparing children to deal with the adult world?

In a week when other headlines have trumpeted the fact that the BBC Loneliness Experiment shows that more 16-24 year-olds are lonely than over 65s, then possibly we need to look more carefully at what parents and schools are doing to help children make their way in the rough and tumble of what can be a very unforgiving world.  We all wish to protect our children for as long as possible from the vicissitudes of life, but already the modern world prolongs childhood far longer than ever used to be the case.  If student unions feel the need to ban proper applause in their events and attempt to persuade other societies that this is the way forward so not to upset those with ‘sensitivities’, then that is one thing, but for our Higher Education Minister to be suggesting that our delicate and over-sensitive students are not at university for the prime purpose, in one form or another, of the training of the mind, then we risk losing sight completely of the purposes of higher education.



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