The harmful idea of student ‘vulnerability’

A growing zeal to address ‘well-being’ diverts resources from those who really need help, says Kathryn Ecclestone

January 23, 2014

One university leaflet tells students to seek counselling if new ideas make them ‘uncomfortable’

Ten years ago, my ears pricked up when I heard a vice-chancellor tell staff that students admitted via his university’s widening participation programme needed careful attention because they had “emotional baggage” that created barriers to learning.

A decade later, universities have become subject to what Kate Brown, a lecturer in social policy at the University of York, calls a “zeitgeist of vulnerability”. At all levels of study, it is common to hear even privileged, high-achieving students refer to themselves as vulnerable because they are anxious, stressed and nervous. Increasingly, universities’ welcome addresses begin with empathetic assumptions about how students must be feeling before outlining how much support they will get. Not only do the life-changing possibilities of study come a long way down the list of induction topics, they have themselves become a source of vulnerability: one university leaflet tells students to seek counselling if new ideas and ways of thinking make them “uncomfortable”.

More people are being formally defined as vulnerable, while universities feed the idea via courses on dealing with perfectionism, procrastination and stress, building resilience and solving relationship problems (including with dissertation supervisors). Many have established online cognitive behavioural therapy courses and guidelines for setting up self-help groups while others are considering transition role-play sessions for students leaving university.

Vulnerability has also become a popular topic for practitioner and academic research. Diverse psycho-emotional threats, such as being a non‑traditional student or experiencing stressful forms of assessment, lead to injunctions for more support, adjustments to teaching and assessment methods and appeal procedures.

Counselling services are under pressure, and institutions’ support services are being subsumed into a bigger “wellbeing” portfolio of academic and study skills provision, disability support and medical services. Universities see such services as essential to student retention, achievement – and satisfaction ratings.

As the head of medical services at a Russell Group university told me recently, ideas for supporting new vulnerabilities come from all corners of universities, generating new systems and activities. Many of his peers in university counselling and medical services share his concern that resources are being stretched to the limit as the vulnerability zeitgeist becomes a self-fulfilling pit of need that obscures real vulnerability and encourages students to shift responsibility for managing everyday problems on to the institution.

In my research on the rise of emotional well-being as a focus for educational intervention, I’ve learned that raising critical questions about these developments leads to allegations of having an elitist disregard for students’ needs. I am not suggesting that universities should be indifferent to anxieties, but I believe unchallenged assumptions about vulnerability are damaging the educational relationship between students and academics.

The rise in vulnerability claims is leading academics to become more lenient. Some withdraw assessment demands or soften their feedback; others become more cautious about exploring controversial ideas.

Third-year undergraduates at two Russell Group universities have told me that claims of vulnerability among students are so common that not participating in them is becoming socially unacceptable. This goes hand in hand, they say, with resentment about lack of support from lecturers, which is often blamed for academic underachievement.

There needs to be a debate about the assumptions we make about vulnerability. It is increasingly difficult for lecturers to differentiate between trivial and serious vulnerabilities. Universities’ systems are often really about promoting student satisfaction. This undermines efforts to challenge the real structural threats that genuinely make some students much more vulnerable than others, diverting resources from those who really need them.

Resisting the idea that education itself makes students vulnerable would be a good place to start.

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