Sever the ties that bind young minds

January 16, 2004

Students who live with mum and dad remain adolescents and never reach their intellectual potential, argues Frank Furedi.

In the late 1980s, I was sitting with a group of German postgraduates at the university refectory in Darmstadt. After a good-natured discussion about the transformation of historical memory in postwar Germany, we went to a nearby bar and chatted about life.

I was deeply struck by how different these students were from the postgrads I had encountered in Britain and North America. Some of these German postgrads jokingly referred to themselves as "students for life".

Two were in their late 30s, and one 31-year-old student proudly boasted that, except for the odd temporary job, he had never worked in his life.

As a group, they were entirely at ease living a life of extended adolescence. Most of them lived at home and appeared, if not happy, at least resigned to a life of perpetual dependence. What disturbed me about their attitude was not that they were living at home or their luxurious attitude towards the pace of their academic work but their lack of aspiration for an independent life.

Today, the experience of this group of German postgrads could be seen as a positive example of lifelong learning. But the tendency to promote learning as a lifelong process may well obscure the fact that real intellectual development requires periods of intense studying by people who are passionate about their subject and have acquired the habit of independence of thought. Unfortunately, the kind of learning that involves exploration and experimentation is not always consistent with being an eternal student and living a life of delayed adolescence in the parental home.

Not all students who live at home opt for a life of delayed adolescence. In many parts of Europe, it is the norm for students, and even postgraduates, to remain at home during their years of study.

And students who come from an economically insecure background have little choice but to remain at home. As student numbers expand in Britain and the proportion of students from a working-class background increases, the percentage of undergraduates living at home is also likely to rise. Of course, it is not just students who find economic independence an elusive commodity - university staff suffer, too. Low academic salaries and temporary contracts make it difficult for postgrads and young members of staff to enjoy a life of economic independence.

Nevertheless, the growing tendency for members of the university community to live with their parents is not simply the direct consequence of economic impoverishment and insecurity. It reflects changing attitudes towards higher education, studying and student identity. Today's undergraduates are frequently regarded as adolescents who cannot be expected to cope with life as adults. And postgraduates are being treated as an elderly version of undergraduates.

For this reason, postgraduate education increasingly resembles its undergraduate counterpart. The infantilisation of postgraduate education is most strikingly symbolised by the growing significance attached to coursework. Even a decade ago, it was possible for postgrads to gain their doctorates without going on a single course. Today, we no longer trust postgrads to pursue their work without the formal structures of what once used to pass for undergraduate education. They are provided with what managers euphemistically call "support" - compulsory courses and a variety of bureaucratic monitoring devices.

New regulation and codes of behaviour have been devised to ensure that supervision is structured and clearly recorded. In this way, it is being transformed into the kind of instrument used to deal with naughty children.

Supervisors are also under pressure to live by the paper trail.

The new regime of postgraduate education, which does little to cultivate independence, reflects changing cultural attitudes towards what we expect of young people. The same forces are at work in relation to the infantilisation of students' living arrangements. The clearest manifestation of changing cultural attitudes towards the status of young people is the growing acceptance of the practice of living at home. Today, more than 1 million children, many approaching their 40th birthday, continue to live at home. Moreover, about 64 per cent of university graduates return home after completing their studies. Just five years ago, less than half this figure - 30 per cent - returned home after graduation.

According to conventional wisdom, the rise in the number of stay-at-home students is a result of economic forces - student poverty, high fees or the rise in rents and property prices. But decisions about whether or not to leave home are not all reducible to economic factors, and in many cases our beliefs about why people live at home may be based on false assumptions.

Take the argument that housing has become so expensive that young people are driven back to the family home. According to the Social Trends survey, the proportion of household expenditure devoted to "housing, water and fuel" has fallen significantly relative to real incomes. Over the past 30 years, while household income has risen by about one and a quarter times, household spending on the cost of housing (housing, water and fuel) has risen by only a half. It appears then that the cost of housing has fallen significantly relative to real incomes.

The fall in the relative cost of housing does not mean that university students can live in luxury. But it shows that the reason why a growing proportion of students opt to live at home has little to do with the fact that it is economically much harder to live an independent life today than it was 30 years ago.

It has never been easy for most students to leave the family home. What has changed is students' aspiration for independence and their desire to strike out on their own. This is a broad cultural trend that influences even the behaviour of graduates who are in paid employment and still living at home.

But does this matter? It can be argued that whether a postgrad lives at home or with friends has little impact on university life. Living at home need not be inconsistent with the pursuit of intellectual independence. However, placed beside the growing cultural tendency to expand adolescence and dependence into middle age, it cannot but have a negative impact.

Intellectual development and scholarship are associated with the development of knowledge and the pursuit of truth. The cultivation of intellectual independence is inextricably linked to this pursuit and is embedded in a form of self-consciousness that is inconsistent with a state of perpetual adolescence. At some point, we need to leave our familiar surroundings behind - if not physically, at least mentally. Among other things, that is what a university education ought to help us to achieve.

Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent.

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