Sex, drugs and student hall

November 11, 1994

Joseph Evans argues that more moral control would make university residence a home from home. If charity begins at home, then we should be thinking more about what sort of home we are offering young people during their university years. Much thought is given over to making universities cost-effective and even profitable. Many a committee spends hours considering how universities can respond to the needs of modern commercial society and industry. But I wonder how many minutes are dedicated to ponder on this really essential question: what sort of environment should we be creating for our students to live in?

In recent years, a good number of universities have embarked on large-scale projects to increase student accommodation. One hears a lot of talk about "exciting new complexes", always with good security, often with en suite facilities and suitable for holiday conferences.

All these features are laudable. The thinking behind them is practical, in the true spirit of British pragmatism. But it is limited. Deeper questions need to be asked. What should the purpose of a hall of residence be? Where should its priorities lie? To give students, "the consumers", what they want (a bar, squash court, comfort, freedom (!))? Or to give them what they might not ask for but what they need (such as pastoral care, good study conditions, and even discipline)?

How much should a university see itself as in loco parentis? If so, how should this be reflected in the spirit and regulations of its residences? With the age of majority fixed at 18, there is a strong argument for answering the last two questions with a firm "Not at all!".

However, no sensible parent believes that an 18-year-old arriving in a new city, first time away from the family home, is no longer in need of support and, indeed, even a certain control. No parent would be happy to think that the university their child is attending has completely abdicated all pastoral responsibility for that young person's non-academic life.

The fact is, university halls of residence can play a crucial role in helping young people enjoy a successful and happy student life and make a smooth and responsible transition to full adulthood.

But for residences to fulfil this role, for them to be halls, centres of real student life, and not just dormitories with bars, there is a need for what I would call three "rediscoveries".

The first is the rediscovery of "purpose". If one looks at the charters of our great educational institutions -- the Oxbridge colleges, the public schools -- one will invariably see that they were established "for the . . ." (eg, for the education of poor children, for the training of religious, and so on). That is, for a purpose.

There was a reason behind them, a founding inspiration. Over the years that "purpose" has animated the life of the institution, given rise to traditions and a particular atmosphere in that place, even in some way moulded the character of its students.

I look at newly-built halls of residence. Usually well-constructed, pleasant in appearance (lessons learnt from the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s), they no doubt fulfil a need. But do they have a purpose or a vision?

The second "rediscovery" is to realise that while it makes sense to satisfy the demands of modern youth, the priority must be to fulfil their real needs as students. I would call this the rediscovery of "authority" by universities.

This implies the courage on the part of university staff to accept that they can and should exercise real moral authority over the students under their charge. It can be cowardice or laziness simply to state "the student knows best" about his or her private life, when it is so often manifest that they do not and desperately need someone to guide them. Gone -- and rightly so -- are the days of Oxford proctors stalking the streets on the look-out for miscreant students but it is an abdication of duty to claim that the universities only exist to transmit knowledge and skills, when their vocation and greatness always has been that they make the person, giving them character and values as well as information.

Young people want freedom but should that freedom be absolute? Should it be freedom to enter into a world of drugs and casual sex? We know both are rife among today's students and I would dare to say the accommodation situation in British universities almost encourages this, as young men and women are thrown together in halls with few if any restrictions.

"Discipline" is an ugly word these days, and so is saying "No". But I believe most people have abandoned them more through timidity than a positive rejection of what they stand for.

The last "rediscovery" is another word, this one more popular in contemporary society but not normally associated with halls of residence. It is "formation". By this I mean that halls should seek to take a pro-active role in forming their residents, in moulding their characters for the good.

Charity begins at home, and so does education. A hall of residence is normally and effectively the student's home for at least a year of his or her university life. It must also be a place of education.

It is amazing the virtues, especially social ones, that can be acquired living in a residence, as long as there is a management with sufficient energy and vision, and sufficiently present, to foster and direct this learning process.

Young people can learn the art of living together, respecting the rights of their hallmates; and they can learn to participate in hall life, taking responsibility on committees and in hall activities.

Catered halls, where students come together for meals, are especially good places to achieve these goals. Young people, of course, often enjoy the total freedom of eating when they like and, sometimes, the challenge of cooking. Having to come back at a fixed hour can be seen as a burden. Thus many prefer self-catering.

But it is at the meal table that young people learn best of all both the art of conversation and respect for the rights of others. You only need once to take too many potatoes, leaving others short, to be told by your table-mates that you have excessively asserted your rights to the detriment of others. Statistics show that results of students in catered halls tend to be a good deal better than those of self-catered ones.

Finally, to make this formation possible, universities need to attract a sufficient number of dedicated and competent staff to help run halls. My experience of hall wardens and their staff is that they are dedicated and well-intentioned. But they are too few.

The role of second and third-year students, the "old hands" who usually run hall committees and help to pass on hall traditions, is essential but they cannot substitute for a lack of adults. What has given the Oxbridge colleges their unique atmosphere is the fact that academics lived with the students.

Purpose, authority, formation . . . not the usual vocabulary when talking of student residences but words that need "rediscovering" if young people are to find the right atmosphere, a "home", in which to draw maximum benefit from their university years.

Joseph Evans is director of Greygarth Hall, a hall of residence for students at the University of Manchester and UMIST. This article expresses his personal views.

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