Department Of Psychiatry, University Of Oxford (Photo by View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Universities are not counselling services

By expecting them to do everything, we forget their central purpose: education

Artillery Row

Even discounting Covid, the last five years have been a rotten time for universities. They have been rocked by difficulties with cancel culture, decolonisation and free speech; and tainted with scandal over alleged bullying, campus racism and sexual predation. Most recently to the fore, however, has been student welfare and mental health. The background to this is a spate of student suicides and, a couple of weeks ago, a widely-reported county court judgment against Bristol University in favour of the parents of a student there who had taken her own life. This held that, by not allowing her to take an assessment tailored to her needs, the institution had failed to follow disability discrimination law and was therefore liable in damages for her death.

Perhaps the solution is not an ever-expanding raft of services

Last week Tim Bradshaw, CEO of the Russell Group of universities (that is, Oxbridge plus 22 other institutions that see themselves as the UK academic elite), put out a statement. It sounded like a damage limitation exercise, with its suggestion that students were at least to some extent the responsibility of social services generally. But its main thrust was that universities had to get their welfare act together. Students today, it was said, needed “more than just lectures and tutorials”. Universities already provided pastoral and other care through “teams of highly committed and caring individuals” working across campuses; but they needed to go much further, “invest in more services” and “help remove the stigma that stubbornly lingers and makes it harder to ask for help”.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. But at the risk of sounding contrary, there is another line to take. Might it be argued that the idea that universities ought to provide students with “more than lectures and tutorials” is itself the problem? One could suggest very plausibly that the solution is not an ever-expanding raft of services being promised by, and expected of, universities, but the opposite: a retrenchment by institutions, a concentration on their central functions of lectures and tutorials, and a statement that we shouldn’t expect any more from them.

This proposal may sound heartless. It is not intended to be, and it is certainly not intended to express anything but heartfelt sympathy for the suffering of parents who, having been promised that the university they sent their offspring to would look after their children’s welfare, have been shamefully let down. But there are several very powerful arguments in favour of a serious rethink of what we expect from higher education.

Universities have evolved in the last sixty years or so from medium-sized, largely intellectual institutions to substantial corporations many of whom educate, feed, accommodate and nurture the population of a sizeable town (Manchester, for instance, now turns over well over £1 bn a year and tends to an undergraduate body roughly equal to the population of Huntingdon). Whatever their academic standards, few would be seen as particularly impressive when it comes to peripheral functions: not many students flock to University X because its halls of residence are brilliant.

This is in many cases just as true for pastoral care. The system under which academics act as personal tutors, originally introduced in pale imitation of the college tutor arrangements at Oxbridge, is effectively broken. As any student will more or less willingly confirm, many academics are congenitally inexpert at providing personal pastoral care (something which should surprise no-one, since that is not what they are primarily employed to do). The presence of a central counselling department, or whatever, only very partially fills the gap. The time may well have come to admit this fact, accept that these functions ought to be taken over by someone else, and limit universities’ pastoral functions simply to referring students to them.

Students, unlike schoolchildren, are adult and autonomous

Not only has the performance of universities outside their core functions been fairly unimpressive, but their expansion into peripheral areas has affected their academic functions, too. Transformed from simple teaching institutions into multipurpose corporations concerned with running what is essentially a community within a community, they are now largely run not by academics but corporate bosses who would be equally at home running a hotel chain or any other kind of service industry. These people see academic activities and research as merely one of many priorities in competition with all sorts of other matters. These not only involve welfare, though this looms very large: it’s also corporate reputation, marketing, employment prospects and a host of other priorities. No wonder students increasingly find themselves not so much invited to satisfy intellectual curiosity, but pitched to in terms of the supposed overriding “student experience” provided in exchange for their fees.

Think for a moment about an unstated assumption lying behind much of the controversy over welfare: namely, that universities in carrying out their educational functions must owe a moral duty to their students to safeguard their general well-being. Apparently obvious, this actually rests on rather flimsy foundations. The obvious analogy, that of a school as regards its pupils, is unconvincing. Students, unlike schoolchildren, are adult and autonomous. However much pressure they may have faced from their parents, they are voluntarily attending the institution, which they can leave at any time if they find it too stressful. A rather more convincing parallel would be (say) a music course or a sports club, which one joins to improve one’s singing or golf. No-one seriously suggests that such an institution owes a duty to members not to put undue pressure on them to perform well, or to look after their interests in any more general sense at all.

Far from following the road mapped out by Mr Bradshaw, there is a strong argument that our universities should do the opposite. Let them concentrate on what they are good at — lectures and tutorials — and think hard about ditching a good deal of the rest, including welfare, which other dedicated organisations can do better. We should even consider amending disability discrimination law to prevent liability arising for stress caused to those who cannot cope with such a concentration. This may strike many as hard-hearted. But it is probably necessary if we want universities to return to their proper function, not as institutions one pays in exchange for the chance to gain a degree and undergo a largely manufactured “student experience”, but as places one attends out of a genuine desire to learn.

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