Old hippies turn into uptight parents

'TIS THE SEASON of Spring Break, that joyous time in the American college year when happy hordes of students head to the beaches for a week, or two, of unbridled rest and recreation.

This orgiastic melee of half-tanned bodies, youthful shrieks and round- the-clock excess has long seemed an anomaly in the serious world of American higher education that has evolved since the riotous Sixties.

This year, though, the contrast is exceptionally sharp, for Spring Break punctuates an impassioned debate about the responsibilities of universities towards their students: not their academic responsibilities, but something as old-fashioned as a college's duty of care.

At issue is whether university authorities should be required to exercise more control over their students. And what makes the discussion so piquant is that the pressure for more control comes not from teachers concerned about low standards, nor from college administrators worried about unruly behaviour, but from the students' parents.

And who are those parents? None other than the very generation that treated its college years as a chance to loosen the ties of family, flout authority and challenge the foundations of the established order. They were the "flower children", the anti-Vietnam war protesters and the campus rebels who ransacked university offices to destroy their files and passed much of the time in a narcotic haze. But that was a long time ago. Now, with whatever misgivings, the vast majority have joined the establishment they spurned - one of them is even President. They are sending their own children off to college, and they want to be sure that they are kept out of danger. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that the "children", far from protesting, seem by and large to support the call for stricter rules and want more staff around the campus to enforce them.

It is members of the in-between generation - those who were at college in the Seventies and Eighties - who have really sparked the debate, with fierce argument between those who welcomed their licence to make mistakes and practise independent living, and those for whom college life was an anarchic nightmare of date-rape, filthy canteens and drunken thugs swinging from the lights.

For the second group, more discipline on campus cannot come too soon. A majority, though, seem to regret the passing of an opportunity for young people to sow wild oats and fear the long-term consequences of what they call "the new paternalism".

Some of the pressure from today's parents can be traced back to their own college experiences - were they the quiet ones whose education was disrupted by the rebels, or do they just have a better idea of what students can get up to? Some reflects a very basic value-for-money instinct: the parents want to be sure that the $80,000 (pounds 50,000) or more that they are shelling out for a four-year course at a good college is not being squandered. In response, some colleges have introduced contracts which they and the parents sign. The parents undertake that their child will obey regulations, and the college undertakes to notify the parents of their child's term grades and of any discipline infractions.

There is, however, much more to the current parental pressure for the college authorities to take more responsibility for their students' conduct than memories of misspent youth and hard-nosed consumerism. Middle-class American parents, particularly those who live in the suburbs of big cities, have protected their teenage children in a way that is reserved for primary- school children in Britain.

Many of today's American school-leavers - especially the ones headed for college - have been accompanied everywhere and kept in safe company every waking hour. They are far less mature than their European - and especially British - contemporaries. Their knowledge of the outside world comes by and large from television; a fraction of it from what they see from their car. To this extent, their parents may be right: perhaps they do need a more gradual transition to independence.

The other big factor is the mismatch in the United States between the laws on drinking and the laws on everything else. At 18, an American has the rights and responsibilities of an adult - except in the matter of drinking. In most states, the legal drinking age is 21. Imagine the effect of such a law on British universities: student union bars would go out of business; Oxbridge tutors would have to banish the sherry bottle. Of course, the problem would go "underground". Which is exactly what happens in the US.

Those who may legally drink and those who may not live side by side on campus. Illegal "binge" drinking flourishes, and periodically a student dies from the effects, ratcheting up calls for stricter controls.

While some colleges are starting to organise strictly teetotal entertainment, others prefer to turn a blind eye. Some take the middle course of requiring students to register parties and undertake in writing to observe the drinking laws: this passes the legal obligation to the students and means that the college will not be sued.

The drinking age has not always been 21. It used to be 18, but a spate of road deaths caused by teenage drunk drivers in the Eighties led to a campaign to raise it, spearheaded by the newly-formed group Mothers against Drunk Driving. The age was raised initially only in a few states, but it went up almost nationwide after Congress voted to withhold road subsidies from states that kept the age at 18.

Among academics who remember the time when the drinking age was 18, some believe that alcohol was less of a problem than it has since become. But when a group of professors decided last year to lobby for a change in the law, opposition verged on the hysterical.

The ambiguity that regards students as adults, but not completely responsible for their behaviour, thus looks set to continue for some time.