Time to get tough with the ‘student snowflakes’ rhetoric

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The latest iteration of culture war is upon us, and it isn’t our transatlantic peers that have fallen foul: the media has featured such a spate of articles making reference to millennial students as ‘snowflakes’ that the nickname has stuck.

While the vast majority of this pejorative, disdain-filled, sentiment aimed at students has come from sources beyond the sector, it is becoming increasingly apparent that our campuses are not immune. Alarmingly the same disdain for students’ lack of resilience can be found within universities, albeit much better veiled. Perhaps it is no surprise that student non-continuation rates have continued to rise in recent years.

How we talk about resilience in higher education is inherently flawed. It’s just one of our many buzzwords, and many people don’t have a clear idea of what they mean when they make judgements surrounding a student’s resilience, or lack thereof. A supposed lack of resilience is often used to explain away a variety of academic outcomes, including non-continuation. The rhetoric of resilience sets an invisible threshold for participation in university life; a certain level of implicit ‘toughness’ to be expected.

Worryingly, this often results in a failure to support students who are not perceived to make ‘the cut’ by our own standards. A student’s non-continuation might be more readily dismissed on the basis of their lack of character or ability, rather than a lack of support from their institution or elsewhere. Rarely is resilience spoken of positively; more often than not it is identified as a deficit.

Unpacking resilience

Although rarely articulated, most definitions of resilience implicitly identify an individual’s capacity to recover from adversity, or perhaps achieve an outcome that exceeds expectations.

There’s a lot to pick apart here. Firstly, it assumes that resilience is something innate. Typically, British narratives of ‘character-building’ abound with this approach. As a society, and as a sector, we have bought into essentialist thinking. Secondly, our conception of resilience is relatively static. From the day a student enrols to the day they graduate we expect them to maintain a ‘fixed’ level of resilience. Yet we also celebrate how higher education is a supposedly ‘transformative’ experience, celebrated with all the pomp and ceremony of graduation. A student’s circumstances and level of adversity are likely to change throughout their studies. Are essentialist, static conceptions of resilience compatible with the transitions we expect students to make over the course of their degree?

We should examine the factors that influence an individual’s capacity for being resilient. When we talk about students needing ‘thicker skin’, or cite ‘resilience’ as a solution to HE’s growing mental health crisis, we invoke deficit-based discourses that have no place in our institutions – it’s a stick with which to beat students. When really, it is universities that have a problem understanding resilience.

And this problem doesn’t affect students equally. Students from widening participation backgrounds and those with protected characteristics are disproportionately impacted by our failure to understand resilience. Non-continuation rates for the most disadvantaged students have reached 8.8% for first year undergraduates, compared to 6.2% of their non-WP peers. Both these figures have been rising steadily for the last few years, and it’s clear that students from WP backgrounds are bearing the brunt of HE’s resilience-based stigma. We need an alternative, an language of resilience that recognises the diverse backgrounds our students bring to higher education; an alternative that challenges the ‘Generation Snowflake’ rhetoric, rather than implicitly propagating it.

Professor Jacqueline Stevenson of Sheffield Hallam University has conducted significant research into the deficit models of resilience that plague British universities. Her work includes and exploration of factors in refugee students’ high rates of non-continuation. 75% of refugees studying in UK higher education already have higher education qualifications, yet they are one of the most ‘at risk’ groups for dropping out. Stevenson helpfully goes further than exposing the egregious foundations upon which we have based our models for student support and building resilience. She suggests the answer is to look beyond the individual student, and to look to the wider university community.

It’s a fresh and much needed contribution to the conversation. So here it is, resilience re-imagined…

Resilience 2.0

Resilience 2.0 will take into account the variations and challenges in aspiration our students have. It will recognise that a student from a low-participation neighbourhood gaining a place to study medicine through an access and outreach programme might just require a different level of support when compared to their peers from more privileged backgrounds. Resilience 2.0 will acknowledge the inequalities that exist across British society, and that universities are not immune from it.

Resilience 2.0 will recognise that it’s not a precondition of success. We will understand the vital role that families and social networks play in supporting our students through adversity, rather than assuming that the capacity to endure and achieve comes entirely from within the student themselves. Where these support networks aren’t present, the sector will provide and foster opportunities to forge them. Universities will work actively with students’ unions and Local Care Authorities to create resilient communities.

Resilience 2.0 will adapt to suit the needs of our students. It will understand the difficulties students from disadvantaged backgrounds often have in making sense of our complex institutions, designed, as they are, for the more privileged. Resilience 2.0 will understand that transitions to higher education are relatively easy for some, whilst others struggle to find their way.

More students than ever are becoming the first in their families to walk in our hallways, have a library card, and shake a chancellor’s hand. Should these students’ decide not to continue to study with us, that decision should reflect upon universities rather than them. Under Resilience 2.0, our support will grow for the students we currently dismiss as lacking; and their participation, retention, and success will grow too. Resilience 2.0 will cease to see individual students as the problem, rather than our institutions and communities.

6 thoughts on “Time to get tough with the ‘student snowflakes’ rhetoric”

  1. DEe says:

    Thought-provoking article but doesn’t touch on the phenomenon of the 2nd + uni generation students who come to HE expecting that any negative experience or emotion needs avoiding or intervention. Transformation for these individuals might mean something very different than for WP or refugee background students. Stevenson’s work is excellent and must be noted but this is not the issue that so many refer to.

    Part of our role in HE is to transform society but part of it is also to prepare students for the society that already exists.

    1. Blair says:

      How many students are there who expect to avoid negative experiences and emotions? That’s certainly not something I recognise in any student I know.

  2. Tim Allen says:

    Great article, both passionate and articulate. How true that we should acknowledge the role that families and wider social networks play in resilience for many, and should seek to understand how we can better support students where this is not the case.

  3. Claire P says:

    Great article and I love that you’ve identified that with Resilience 2.0 there is no one size fits all, different levels of support are needed for students from different backgrounds. I do have to agree with DEe though this is wider than WP students and first in family, the pressure on students means that we have to develop different levels of support across the range of students.

  4. obliquepanic says:

    the promotion of resilience seems like a gift for neoliberalism – prominent among public sector workers too – as an alternative to doing something about dysfunctional or underfunded structures. See https://www.routledge.com/Critical-Resilience-for-Nurses-An-Evidence-Based-Guide-to-Survival-and/Traynor/p/book/9781138194236

  5. Rob says:

    Great article. I too like the resilience 2.0 idea and the way it allows for resilience to be thought of alongside resources (social, familial, financial…) and threats (racism, stigma, debt…)

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