Students who can't cut the umbilical cord

October 18, 1996

Walking on to campus last April, I found the place covered with posters produced by the student counselling service, Nightline. They carried a picture of Frankenstein with the slogan: Revision Time? Call Nightline!

At the time the Nightline campaign made me laugh. Given that the only thing that students have to do is pass a couple of relatively minor exams at the end of the year, I thought that student counsellors really must be scraping the bottom of the barrel for things to advise people on. But if the conclusions reached by the recent Glasgow conference on student stress are to be believed, it should no longer be taken for granted that students can cope with the most basic aspects of life.

But why is it that students are suddenly seen as incapable of dealing with things students have always dealt with, from lack of money to exams and relationship breakdowns? As far a gentle transition from home to real life goes, student life today is the least stressful experience any young person could ask for.

Take halls of residence, the first port of call for most freshers. Last term I moved into campus halls for the first time. Apart from the noise and the smell of vomit on Sunday mornings, the aspect of hall life which most struck me was just how easy it all was. You walk into the student accounts office with your grant, pay the whole term's rent (which includes all bills) and forget about it. Your room is cleaned once a fortnight, the communal facilities are cleaned every day, and there are security guards downstairs 24 hours a day in case you lose your key or have any other problems. After a ten-week term, your parents come and take you home for five or so weeks of holidays, and bring you back at the end of them. You could almost forget you were supposed to be living independently.

Even if students do not have the opportunity of living on campus, college life is hardly a traumatic experience. You move into a house temporarily, often with a gang of mates, and spend the time having parties and fighting over the electricity bill. If things do go wrong, there are numerous welfare officers, counsellors and advice centres to help you out with problems from unscrupulous landlords to arguments with housemates.

The extent to which universities try to make the transition from home to college as easy as possible highlights a paradox: that the discussion about student stress takes place at the very time when there are more mechanisms to deal with students' problems than there have ever been. You cannot even go to the lavatory without being surrounded by ten different helpline stickers. Last spring term, I went to the student employment office to find a vacation job and was offered on-the-spot counselling. You do not get the chance to become even the slightest bit worried about anything before someone gives you advice about how to deal with it.

So I simply cannot believe that life is more stressful for students today than it ever has been before. Okay, so there might be more of us and we might be a bit poorer, but these things do not mark a qualitative difference in our experience of college life. It is not that we have more to put up with, but that we are deemed less capable of handling everyday life than the generations before us.

I asked Frank Furedi, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Kent, if my impressions were relevant to Sussex only. Dr Furedi's new book is At Risk? Essays on the Morality of Low Expectations, to be published by Cassell early next year. He made the point that what he terms the "infantilisation" of students has been taking place gradually over the past ten years, and that there has been a "fundamental shift" in the way students approach college life and make a break from their parents. He conducts admissions interviews with potential students: "One out of three students is accompanied by one or both parents, who often dominate the interview while their child sits back and watches. Ten years ago, that never would have happened. Students wanted to be seen as independent. Now, it seems they are more interested in just being looked after."

If there is anything to worry about in the discussion about student stress, it is the notion that young adults should want to remain children, protected from bills, exams and hard work by colleges being in loco parentis. Obviously, no one likes constant hassle. But having to deal with certain everyday facts of leaving home - academic discipline, learning about telephone bills - seems to me to be a good thing, a first experience of adulthood.

What the psychologists call "stress" I prefer to call "life", which might get you down at times but is tremendously creative and a lot more exciting than sitting in front of the telly with your Mum and Dad.

To all those who want to counsel and protect us, I have my own advice. Grow up.

Jennie Bristow is a student at the University of Sussex.

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