Should Universities Be Parents?


Parent University
I am not quite old enough to be a genuine soixante-huitard. When Paris was burning, I was at school listening to a commentary on a transistor radio in a friend’s study. I went to university later that year, although most UK action did take place during 1968-69. The focus was, however, rather different from that of mainland Europe. Mobilization was often around domestic issues rather than revolution and opposition to the Vietnam War. It focussed on the concept of in loco parentis, that university authorities had legal duties, and associated powers, to act as parents in relation to students.

The treatment of students as children had been increasingly problematic since the end of World War II.  Returning service personnel, and, later, those who went to university after conscription, chafed against regulations governing accommodation and lifestyle. These often went back to a time when students arrived at the age of 13. In 1967, a government committee recommended that the general age of legal majority should be lowered from 21 to 18. This was immediately accepted, with legislation taking effect on January 1, 1970. Although the law had not altered by 1968-69, universities were preparing reforms. Many of us thought change was not happening fast enough.

Universities mostly stepped back and focussed on matters that were clearly either academic cheating or ‘offences against communal living’ like excessive noise or verbal abuse of staff. Student health services were discouraged from reporting addiction or mental health problems to university authorities without the student’s consent. Faculty were told not to disclose information to parents. Criminal matters like drug dealing or sexual assault were referred to the police rather than dealt with internally.

It is, then, strange to witness the increasing pressure for UK universities to resume a parental role – and the enthusiasm with which students are embracing this. I find myself profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that universities should accept an open-ended responsibility for student mental health, for policing criminal activity, or for managing student self-care.

Should universities really be expected to compensate for the acknowledged deficiencies of national mental health services for young adults? This introduces a profound source of inequality. Clearly the scale of student mental health issues has changed since my day: you cannot go from 13 percent to 50 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds at university without a corresponding increase in the numbers of students seeking help. I am not suggesting that the widening of access to higher education has drawn in more people with problems. Admission standards for university may well exclude young people with established mental health problems. If this is the case, it compounds the inequity of providing additional support for a less vulnerable group. There may be a case for universities to fund screening and triage, but it would surely be fairer for the main provision to come through the same channels as those available to young people who do not attend university?

Students get involved in a range of criminal activities – petty theft, drug dealing and sexual assaults. Universities find themselves pressed to deal with many of these internally, either to protect students from the acquisition of a criminal record, which may compromise future careers, or to compensate for failures in the criminal justice system. It is hard to justify the first of these on equity grounds. Why would you treat a young person more leniently because they happen to be a university student? The second is more troubling. It is most obvious in cases of sexual assault, where the complaint does not meet the evidential threshold for a prosecution or does not lead to a conviction. Here the inequity lies on the student side. The alleged perpetrator is exposed to double jeopardy in a disciplinary process that lacks the safeguards of the criminal justice system. Universities are not equipped to deal with the forensic issues. Their internal tribunals are only loosely bound by considerations of natural justice – the presumption of innocence, the right to know the full case and to confront witnesses, and the right to representation by an advocate of one’s own choosing. The result is often a kangaroo court. Should adults expect to be protected from the consequences of bad sexual choices if these do not meet the legal tests of assault?

The issue of bad behaviour comes up quite frequently in terms of student self-care, especially in terms of alcohol consumption and diet. How far is it a university’s responsibility to regulate adult conduct? (US readers should note that anyone in the UK can legally consume liquor from the age of 18) Clearly, there are disciplinary issues if drunk students disrupt academic activities or communal residences run by the university. Even here, why should the drunk be dealt with differently from if they were renting from a private accommodation provider, when the likely consequence would be summary eviction, or sharing an apartment, when the consequence would depend on the sharers’ self-government and the extent of their toleration for the behaviour? With student diet, the concern is often in the other direction.

Here, we must be careful not to confuse student poverty with unwise choices, which adults are entitled to make. Student poverty is a real concern – but then so is poverty among young people in general. Should we introduce a new inequity by demanding that universities subsidise catering beyond operating on a non-profit basis? Can we justify imposing a tax on other students by diverting fee income to reduce food costs – much as we already tax arts and social science students to subsidise the costs of teaching STEM subjects?

Back in the day, we had some clarity. Students were independent adults and expected to be treated as such. We pushed back against paternalism. I find it interesting that this is precisely what parents, students and other stakeholders now expect – and which universities lack the courage to challenge. Your university should not be confused with your parent.


Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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