This article is more than 5 years old

Building resilient communities rather than resilient individuals

Neil Mackenzie of Sheffield Students' Union argues that we should shift our focus from developing "resilient" students to developing resilient university communities, instead.
This article is more than 5 years old

Neil Mackenzie is Chief Exec at Leeds Beckett SU

Being against resilience can often push one into the corner of being anti-hard work, anti-achievement, or even fulfilling the old trope of jealousy of the successful and wealthy.

How can we not want our young people to be more resilient to the harsh realities of the modern world? Surely building resilience is a meaningful endeavour in the face of a mental health crisis? Is resilience not a way of trying to help students to overcome disadvantage and without it do we not doom them with the message that is isn’t even worth trying?

I think the proponents of “character education”, “grit” and “resilience” as it is generally conceptualised are, in the most part, trying to offer pragmatic solutions to the world as they see it now. However, the position that is generally adopted fails to ask some fundamental questions about the structure of our society and our economy. It is also firmly rooted in an individualist world view, ignoring the collective support and gains that communities and societies can provide in enabling the flourishing of all of our young people.

Sure, Chris Skidmore MP has shown he is resilient to have overcome his youthful dalliance in politically incorrect punk. But are we not going to question whether his ability to bounce back could have had more to do with his race, gender, family wealth & contacts, and his private education?

The government regularly talks about the importance of high expectations to drive the achievement of young people, no matter their background, but a bit of a critical understanding of society to go alongside this is vital to provide context. Without this, the notion of resilience risks young people internalising all of their successes and failures. The structurally disadvantaged blame themselves for a societal problem, the privileged praise themselves and their grit for the head start they were gifted. The Sutton Trust’s 2016 report, Leading People, is key reading here in understanding just how ingrained structural inequality is in our country; 7% of the population attended a private school, yet this minority dominate the professions and the most senior positions – 74% of the judiciary, 52% of journalists, 48% of senior civil servants and 67% of our Oscar winners come from this 7%.

I think the government is right in pushing what it terms “character education” to highlight the importance of extracurricular activities in developing personal traits that may support young people throughout their lives. But I am under no illusion that they intend to genuinely level the playing field. Things like small class sizes, palatial sporting facilities, and provision of after school activities cost money that there is no intention of providing.

The individualism of the resilience narrative also shows an ignorance of family and social support structures that are so critical to providing support when any of us faces a setback or an obstacle. In the context of universities, this can be amplified even further for first generation students who have no family experience to fall back on. First generation students have often shown remarkable grit to make it to university, so for us then to think that it is a personal deficit in their own resilience that they lack family contacts with an understanding of UK higher education is patently ridiculous.

Communities of resilience

What if we thought about building resilient communities instead? What could that offer our students and our services? This could be an attempt to spread and to pool the resources, structures and networks of our university community. To use the collective strength of our institutions and students’ unions to try to level the playing field and provide the kind of safety nets that allow any of us to take a risk with the confidence that someone will catch us if we fall.

Many, probably most, universities offer support around academic skills and writing. This is a useful collective response and provides resilience to students when faced with unfamiliar tasks and concepts through their studies. We have rightly adopted the position of not blaming students for a failure to gain skills no one has taught them.

Students’ unions have for a long time offered housing support through advice centres. At Sheffield we have recently developed a housing manifesto, informed by students and aimed at using the collective strength of our 29,000 students to shape the housing market in the city rather than simply mitigate the worst excesses of it. We hope to keep more money in students’ pockets, reduce any problems they may face with the fabric of their home or their landlord, and in so doing provide them with a ‘resilience’ to cope with the rest of their university life.

We will soon launch new projects around money, protecting the collective rights of students as workers in local businesses; maximising the money in their pockets through loans, grants and, bursaries; and reducing outgoings through support in making decisions on essentials.

We won’t fix structural inequality, but with the collective voice and strength of our students we will make our community more resilient to inevitable difficulties. Crucially, we will do this in a way that will not fetishise individual struggles. In doing so, we may be able to reduce the number of students needing the support of our mental health services, but we won’t criticise those who do need help as “entitled snowflakes” who expect success to be handed to them.

Resilience in an uncertain world

The future of the economy and the jobs market is often highlighted when advocating the importance of grit and resilience. It is also most certainly an area of life that is creating concern and anxiety for students. The flexibility of the modern labour market is certainly something that concerns me, loaded as the dice always feel in the favour of employers.

Our papers often contain stories of business criticising the lack of personal and “soft skills” from our graduates. The resilience narrative again terrifies me in this field. It blames individuals for an employment market and economy that they do not control or create, and is blind to the gross inequality that class, geography, and social networks provide. My university friends who were able to move home to London and the South East to live with parents while they built their careers certainly possessed a layer of resilience that I did not given that I’m from Durham.

Young people are graduating into a rapidly changing and uncertain world. In the UK, they will enter an employment market that has seen the most sustained restriction in wage growth since the Napoleonic wars, experience the retrenchment of the supportive role of the state through austerity, and the likelihood of climate breakdown within their lifetimes through the waste, ignorance and inaction of their elders.

The very least we owe them is to not blame them for lacking the resilience to flourish in this context. Perhaps if we are to develop collective responses on our campuses, we can show that there are different ways of doing things, of solving our collective problems and they may be able to make the changes that the current generation in power have singularly failed to deliver. At the very least, we can try to provide the ability to critically evaluate the world around us and perhaps to show that the world does not have to be quite so brutally competitive, individual, and isolating.

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