Growing up, whenever I got cheeky or sullen about some aspect of family life, from chores to enforced walking holidays, my mother’s retort was always the same: “While you’re under our roof, you’ll do as I say. When you’re 18, you’ll be on your own and can do as you like.”
This was only half true, since I was not cut dead financially or otherwise at 18. But that didn’t stop 18 — the age most of my peers and I finished school and headed off to university — from being a watershed. This was the moment we left home and stopped having to worry about parental authority or meddling. What this translated into, of course, was being able to stay out all night, get up at noon on Mondays and do woefully little academic work — all unquizzed and unexamined. Hooray!
Obviously, cutting free at 18 to run amok at university wasn’t entirely a smooth ride. There were the inevitable miseries, disappointments and physical flattenings. But having finally fled parental supervision, the downs were just as much ours as the ups. We were hardly inclined to let our parents in on every anxious moment or depressive morning — or even longer doleful periods, which were usually tied to romantic disaster or a daunting workload. Calling mummy or daddy would defeat the whole point. Independence mattered even more than emotional comfort. I remember a friend actually weeping on the last day of her first term at university — even though she’d struggled — because the prospect of going home was such a downer.
How things have changed. The annual UK Student Academic Experience Survey of 14,000 students has found that four in five want more parental involvement in their university life, and are happy to have their mental health issues shared with mum and dad. According to Nick Hillman, the head of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), which carried out the survey, the idea that “students are adults, they don’t want their parents interfering in their life, parents are the last people you would want to tell if you had a challenge”, is out of date.
On one level, of course, this is sensible: students today are generally more anxious and, therefore, need more help. The proportion of students with “low anxiety” — in other words, happy students — is shrinking. The survey also found that undergraduates are “less” satisfied with life than their peers and find life “less worthwhile”.
A spate of student suicides and sudden deaths — with 12 known or suspected at Bristol University alone in the past three years — certainly does suggest the need for better support. The father of a Bristol student who took his own life last May said that he had no idea his son was struggling so much, or that the university was considering withdrawing him from the course. This isn’t simply negligence, of course: at 18, students are adults, and data protection laws make sharing confidential information, even with parents, tricky. Finding ways to loop in parents to prevent tragedies like this is therefore essential.
But in less extreme cases, the spread of “alert the parents!” culture could go badly wrong. Imagine you’re a confused 18-year-old who has just escaped home and a set of domineering or even nasty parents. The last thing you want is for mum and dad to be called every time you turn up at a seminar looking down in the mouth. Even if your parents are well meaning and lovely, most teens — even today — presumably want to grow up at some point. University offers them a chance to do so, one that involves dealing with the pains and perils of independent life.
One of the grimmest results of the hothouse approach to student well-being has been the erosion of distinctions between “good” and “bad” in domains that (should) have nothing to do with mental health. My stomach turned last week to read Cambridge had to apologise for suggesting that a third-class degree could be a disappointment. The offending email, sent by the university’s careers service, contained the subject line, “Disappointing results? Our top advice”, and went on: “So you didn’t get the grade you hoped for — 3rd, 2:2, pass ... You are bound to be feeling a bit floored by this and it will take time to think differently.”
Three hours later, the careers service issued an apology for wording that had “caused some distress”, while the head of the student union insisted that “no grade is ‘bad’ and you should genuinely be so proud of all you’ve achieved this year, regardless of what ends up on a bit of paper at the end of the year”. A shoddy degree result does not signify a shoddy person. But students should be “proud” of a third? class degree? Sorry, but no.
I’m all for bolstering the mental well-being of students. But in allowing universities to become places where it is “distressing” to suggest a third-class degree is disappointing, we’re doing them far more harm than good. University is about taking the rough with the smooth — and figuring out how to do it without an army of concerned adults (and sanctimonious student bodies) rushing in before you’ve had the chance.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Zoe Strimpel is a British journalist, writer and commentator