University students - are they toddlers or young adults?

Walking with mum and dad on campus used to be seen as a marker for social death. Today parents are everywhere. Why must we infantilise academic life?

Frank Furedi
Thursday 07 March 2013 13:06

It appears that university undergraduates are actually consuming alcoholic beverages.

Even worse – according to a new report – they are pursuing a carefree lifestyle and apparently lecturers are shirking from their duty of holding their students' hands!

A survey of anxious school teachers condemns universities for actually believing that ‘that young people are adults and can fend for themselves’. Apparently undergraduates are biologically mature toddlers! ‘18-year-olds today are a lot less robust and worldly wise,’ warns the report.

This call to infantilise academic life is coupled with the demand to medicalise the problems of existence faced by young adults. To promote this therapeutic crusade, Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, will today launch a four point plan to help undergraduates deal with the problems of everyday life.

The message communicated by this survey, and its claim that because undergraduates are far from ‘robust and wordly wise’ they need support to make a transition to university life, is that young men and young women lack the moral and intellectual resources for becoming self-sufficient people.

In my opinion, the proposed plan represents another step in the advance of the project to extend childhood. As someone who has worked in universities for almost four decades I bear witness to the corrosive process whereby young people have been incited to think of themselves lacking the capacity to strike out on their own and assume a measure of control for their life.

Regrettably, the constant questioning of the capacity of young people to cope with life at a university has the character of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you constantly lecture young people that life on a campus is very, very stressful and that they really need support than it is not surprising that some of them will experience life through the prism of psychological distress.

It was in the 1990s that the radical re-definition of an undergraduate as a toddler began to kick in. It was during this decade that parents started arriving with their children on Open Days. Until the late 1990s students were actually embarrassed to be seen with their parents on campus. Walking with mum and dad was seen as a marker for social death. Today parents are everywhere. Some even call their kids’ tutors to complain about a grade for an essay. The parent-free university has given way to one where some institutions actually publish publicity material targeting them.

The invasion of the campus by the parents was paralleled by the massive expansion of counselling services. At the same time student unions – who found it difficult to gain backing for political campaigning – opted for demanding more therapeutic support for their members. Twenty or thirty years ago student leaders demanded a different world – now they speak according to the script of the infantilised academy. ‘Universities should do all they can to provide comprehensive pastoral and welfare support for their students’ stated Peter Mercer, NUS vice-president (welfare) in response to the survey.

The guy who said that ‘when I grew up, I put away childish ways behind me’ would find that when he arrived on campus he would be accused of being a sad git in denial.

I for one take the view that undergraduates need to be taken seriously and treated as individuals who are expected to have the capacity to take responsibility for their life. They are no longer school children and they need intellectual guidance and mentoring, not ersatz parents who masquerade as tutors. Let them drink and let them experience with life. Let them learn to take responsibility for their inevitable errors of judgment and mistake. To do otherwise is to be complicit in the fatal blunder of diminishing their aspiration for independence.

Frank Furedi’s Moral Crusades In An Age Of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published on 19 March by Palgrave Pivot

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