Students are having a tough time in the public eye at the moment. They’ve been called coddled and spoilt, and told that they don’t understand freedom of speech. Disdain has come from high-profile figures includingRichard Dawkins, Jackie Ashley (president of the Univeristy of Cambridge’s Lucy Cavendish College), and University of Oxford chancellor Chris Patten. But is the criticism warranted?
*settles in with large gin*
“It upsets me when people have a go at students,” says Joanna Williams, a higher education programme director at the University of Kent. “It’s unfair because it’s not all students who want to ban things; campaign groups and students’ unions often represent a tiny minority. Also, students are often just acting out political trends taking place in the rest of society. Look at the petition to ban Donald Trump from the UK.”
Yes, and just how many signatories were students?
But Williams says we should nonetheless be active in addressing these concerns. When Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines was banned by student unions in 2013, for example, she says many mistakenly drew a causal link between a “yukky song and real sexual violence”. Instead, she says, academics need to show students how to debate and challenge ideas that they disagree with.
But as David Thompson’s blog reminds us, it’s the academics themselves who so often have the biggest problem with this…
Williams proposes that the safe spaces movement springs from a lack of maturity in modern students.
Really? Well, you could knock me down with a feather! I wonder where they get it from?
Student advocates, unsurprisingly, disagree. Naa Acquah, general sectary of the University of Manchester’s student union, says that rather than swaddling students in a blanket ban on difficult ideas, safe spaces offer much-need respite from discrimination.
The sort of ‘discrimination’ which hasn’t prevented him from obtaining a university place, you’ll note.
… some academics argue that this sensitivity is actually the product of a new style of university leadership. Dennis Hayes, a professor of higher education at the University of Derby, says the “student experience industry” treats young people as vulnerable, partly as a result of the competition for tuition fees.
“Everything from welcome week to on-site counselling to puppy rooms – they all come together to present university as an intimidating rather than an exciting experience,” he offers.
How far we’ve fallen.
Ed Pinkey, a campaigner and founder of mental health charity Student Minds, argues that students should be applauded rather than criticised for looking out for their peers who are facing problems.
“Staff might think that students are being hysterical, but there are traumas on campus,” he says. “In a student population of many thousands, there are lots of reasons for students to be wary of what could be triggering or emotionally challenging to some of their peers. “
Traumas, there are. TRAUMAS!!
Stephen Jones, a senior lecturer in higher education at the University of Manchester, says universities must ask themselves if they are providing the kind of support to which students respond.
“We pin details of office hours to our doors and wait for students to seek our help,” he says.
“But that can be more intimidating than we realise for some undergraduates.”
What, knocking on a door..!?
That’s not really going to help their likely future career as junk mail delivery worker, I fear…
So what is to blame for the tension growing on campuses? A rapid rate of change combined with distaste for student-experience initiatives? The lack of dialogue between staff and students? An old-fashioned generational divide?
Acquah votes for the latter: “People who are part of an older generation now think they fixed everything, and society can’t get any more progressive, but it can.”
Well, that’s a warning if ever I heard one…