Out of their depth, out of control

University Students Behaving Badly
February 9, 2007

I found this a difficult work to review for a number of reasons. Its main subject - the stalking, sexual harassment and bullying of, and violent behaviour towards, lecturers (mainly female) - is of course important, and the author tries to use findings from around the world on similar topics to boost her own research. In the end, however, she is dealing with a core group of 22 self-selected people (half of them middle-aged men) from mainly post-1992 universities. This group contains no blacks or gays, although the tone of the book is firmly politically correct - "Stella was a white, single, non-disabled, 38-year-old with no children" - and very aware of its "feminist" credentials - one chapter is titled "Don't say the F-word!" Despite the author's best intentions, however, this work struggles to rise above the level of anecdote, albeit with this PC spin.

Some of Deborah Lee's findings seem to confirm what one would expect; others are more disturbing. It is difficult to teach feminism to male students at post-1992 universities that are struggling to retain students who are not sure why they are there at all. Many of them will reject "process-oriented feminist pedagogy" as opposed to "teacher-led lectures". Other groups of students seem equally ill-disposed to learning - such as mature students in their thirties who have been made redundant and who are studying for their higher national diplomas.

None of this surprises me. But students in some halls of residence now seem able to supply guns, knives, drugs and even run prostitution rackets. This does surprise me - I spent several years looking after halls of residence. Still, however surprising or unsurprising the results of Lee's research may be, teaching staff have to inject some sort of discipline into the kind of students she writes about, often with little or no support or understanding from their heads of department, who are increasingly concerned to treat students as consumers rather than people involved in an educational process.

The result is that many academics, already underpaid and unappreciated, live lives of great tension. Indeed, according to a 2003 report, 70 per cent of academics found their work stressful and 44 per cent had considered abandoning university teaching altogether. These figures again surprised me, as did the fact that British universities in the past five years have reported more than 1,000 incidents of violence.

Lee asserts, probably correctly: "Conventional wisdom in academia tends to insist that problems with students are the fault of the academics concerned, whereas the evidence presented is that academics who encounter unacceptable student conduct are unexceptional." She offers as possible solutions self-help groups, awareness training, a zero-tolerance rule as enforced in the National Health Service, better management training, teacher-training awareness, student-awareness training and better communications between universities - all of which seems very sensible.

Still, I cannot help wondering whether the problems outlined in this book are really universal or simply those of the new universities. I teach at a world-class university, the London School of Economics, where our students are the crème de la crème . In decades of teaching at the LSE, I have never encountered serious problems of discipline or even student bad manners. Our halls of residence can be a bit boisterous occasionally, but I've never heard of guns, knives or prostitutes being found there regularly, although drugs, I have been told, are used. During each academic year clearly some classes are better than others - some years are better than others - but on the whole I have always found it easy to get on well with students, many of whom become my friends.

The real cause of trouble is, I am sure, those students who have no particular desire to be at university or little interest in what they study there. They are often bored to death and have little idea what they will do in life afterwards. Whatever a lecturer tells them is of no interest to them, however well expounded the subject may be. And they have no way of telling anyway because they have no concept of intellectual excitement. They have probably never experienced it, hence they expel their boredom by mocking the teaching staff.

New universities, with less intellectually distinguished student intakes, probably attract more of this kind of people, hence the findings reported by Lee. The real answer may be simply to close a number of the new universities and put an end to the notion that 50 per cent of our school population can benefit from "university education" of some description or other. Clearly many don't want to.

Alan Sked is senior lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics.

University Students Behaving Badly

Author - Deborah Lee
Publisher - Trentham Books
Pages - 144
Price - 17.99
ISBN - 1 85856 369 0

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