My announcement last month that the University of Buckingham intends to become “drug free” unleashed a wall of criticism. Some naysayers said that it reflected a “public school/boarding” mentality that would infantilise students. Others objected to the idea that students would be required to sign a contract promising not to take drugs on campus, and would be asked to leave if they repeatedly ignored the advice. Former chief constable of Cambridgeshire, Tom Lloyd, told the BBC that “prohibition is a hugely costly, counterproductive and harmful failure”, and he offered to come to my university to show me how to deal with drugs properly. I said I would welcome that.
The critics seemed very confident with the current approach. Yet it has done little to arrest the rise of drugs on UK campuses. A survey by the National Union of Students last month found that 39 per cent of students were currently using drugs and that 56 per cent had done so at some point. Universities have sleepwalked into this morass, and without a radically fresh approach there will be further disaster, mental illness, distress and death.
I agree that punishment is counterproductive, but the main emphasis of our initiative is to improve health education and initiate culture change. At present, we are letting 18-year-olds walk barefoot across a field of glass. When they cut their feet on the shards, institutions rush in with counsellors and medics. But surely it would be better to give them more advice on how to avoid injury in the first place by wearing protective footwear.
The House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee said last week that the focus of mental health treatment among the young needed to shift dramatically towards prevention. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has been saying something similar for many years: his view is that much more needs to be done to prepare young people to cope better with the difficulties of life – and there are few challenges more difficult than the transition to university.
Seligman’s approach has informed my whole thinking on positive and character education, which I developed while I was headmaster of the private school Wellington College and which, as I argued in a pamphlet co-authored with Alan Martin for the Higher Education Policy Institute last year, could be applied across higher education. Universities UK is showing the way with its new framework on a whole-university approach to good mental health.
Helping the young learn how to cope and manage their lives is the opposite of infantilisation. The approach we’re advocating, with the involvement of our students, aims to build capabilities and character strengths, in a similar way to that advocated by Joseph Aoun, the president of Northeastern University, in his recent book Robot-Proof. It will give students far more information about the risks of putting drugs into their veins, stomachs and lungs. It aims to make drug-taking and excessive alcohol drinking socially unacceptable, like cigarette smoking now is. It gives information on healthy and natural opportunities for enjoying life, and on de-stressing without taking drugs. It also helps to prepare students for a healthy life after university, during which reliance on illegal or, indeed, legal drugs is also at dangerously high levels.
Not all commentators are critical. One father wrote a harrowing email about the experience of his daughter at one university. Drug abuse is rife there, he says, leading students into debt and academic failure, yet the institution “seems to turn a blind eye”. His daughter is constantly under pressure from other students to join in.
Maryon Stuart set up a charity, Angelus, after she lost a child to drugs. “Universities have failed to prioritise effective drugs education, building resilience,” she believes. Many students don’t want to be part of a druggy culture but feel bullied into fitting in with it.
Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, has been criticised in the sector for saying that universities should be in loco parentis. But he deserves two and a half cheers for doing so. Institutions could be doing more to help young people cope with the freedoms, risks and opportunities of university, and to manage the transition to adult life.
Sir Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.