This article is more than 6 years old

“As much freedom as is good for them” – looking back at in loco parentis

David Malcolm studies the minister’s speech for history, Latin and law
This article is more than 6 years old

David Malcolm is Head of Policy and Campaigns at the National Union of Students.

Last week’s OfS launch conference was a high-brow affair, with Michael Barber and Nicola Dandridge quoting Akhmatova and Stravinsky in their speeches.

Not to be outdone, universities minister Sam Gyimah used a little Latin when he said: “the ‘uni experience’ can be disorienting and demanding, as it should be… in this, the universities need to act in loco parentis, that is to be there for students offering all the support they need to get the most from their time on campus.”

Deus ex minister

On one level, the Minister appeared to be stating that universities have a duty of care to their students, and in general terms few would disagree. However, the use of that particular term could be taken to infer he wants a more interventionist stance than is presently the case – at least, that’s certainly how in loco parentis would have been understood in the past.

Prior to the Family Law Reform and Age of Majority (Scotland) Acts passing into law in 1969, the age of majority in the UK was 21. Anyone under that age was still a child under law, and so for many decades prior to the 1970s universities were generally deemed to be acting in loco parentis (that is, ‘in place of a parent’) in respect of the significant proportion of their students who were not yet legal adults.

The good old days

As a legal concept, in loco parentis was always imprecise. The term derived from common law rather than statute. Only more recently, with legislation such as the Children Act 1989, have teachers and others with responsibilities for aged under 18 years, had their duties clarified. There were at least some practical considerations: for example if a young student had to move away from the family home but could not secure a room in a halls of residence, many universities required them to live in ‘approved lodgings’ licensed by the institution – in other words, a room in a private household with a live-in landlord or landlady. In part, this circumvented certain issues with minors entering into tenancy agreements, but it was also to ensure a degree of supervision over those young people considered to be in the university’s care.

Otherwise, in the absence of a defined set of responsibilities, the concept of in loco parentis commonly manifested itself in a broadly paternalistic attitude to students, an obligation to attend to their students’ moral development as well as their education. There was a pastoral aspect, in the form of personal tutors and friendly advice, but it also led to university regulations governing student behaviour that would seem oppressive to most modern students. Students in general could be subject to dress codes, or required to attend acts of worship, or to live within a certain distance of the university. For those in halls there were usually curfews and prohibitions on overnight guests – most especially those of the opposite sex, and in some institutions resident students had to ask for permission to go home for the weekend.

Duty not equality

Unsurprisingly, rules for women’s halls were often stricter still, “subject to regulations which savoured of the Convent rather than the University,” in the words of a 1938 NUS report.

Rules varied by institution, and colleges of education were often the most draconian of all, concerned as they were with the moral standards of those who would go on to educate future generations. In some such colleges, female students would be required to undertake domestic chores in halls, while at Weymouth Teacher Training College in 1965 one female student was refused a reference for marrying without the college’s permission.

Meanwhile, those who found themselves in lodging might be subject to whatever arbitrary rules were set by the landlord or landlady. Curfews and restrictions on guests were common as in halls, and in a 1969 NUS report, students complained of rules that governed when and how often they could have a bath, or when they were entitled to use heating and lighting, or even if they could use cooking facilities.

Special vulnerability

This paternalism was hardly restricted to universities, and reflected the wider social attitudes and greater deference to authority of the time. Even so, higher education was sometimes thought of as requiring particular attention.

For instance, in the 1957 Wolfenden Report on homosexuality, chaired by the then vice chancellor of the University of Reading, the committee recommended homosexual acts be decriminalised from age 21. They rejected a younger age as they would “have felt obliged to have regard to the large numbers of young men who leave their homes at or about the ages of eighteen and, either for their employment or education … to fix it at eighteen would lay them open to pressure and attentions of an undesirable kind from which the adoption of the later age would help protect them, and which they ought, in view of their special vulnerability, to be protected.”

Moving with the times

However, as the 1960s progressed it became more and more challenging for universities to impose the regulations governing student life. Logistics played a part: as the numbers of students increased, providing personal tutors and the traditional, warden-led hall of residence became ever more difficult due to lack of space, time and money. Students themselves became much more resistant to the rules, and overturning paternalism was a key demand of the student-led revolts of that decade. Most importantly, wider social attitudes had changed, and university rules now seemed out of step. In 1967, the President of NUS, Trevor Fisk noted that “to many students the concept of in loco parentis seems to bear little relationship to the attitudes of their own parents.”

When the Wilson government decided to review the age of majority, via a committee under Justice John Latey, students were a major constituency and NUS’s evidence was highly influential in securing a recommendation to reduce the age to 18 when the committee reported in 1967, duly enacted in 1970. Notably, the Latey Report was welcomed by both NUS and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP, the predecessor of Universities UK) in a joint statement that acknowledged the shift in attitudes towards recognising 18-year-olds as adults. Still, neither the Latey Report nor the legislation reducing the age of majority did, in themselves, require universities to drop the regulations overnight. As Latey put it in his report, “colleges will continue to require that young people do not enjoy themselves with trumpets and strumpets to the point where it keeps other people awake.”

Paternalism therefore lingered a little longer. A 1971 report on student residences quoted the bursar of a men’s voluntary college, who said “We try to give them as much freedom as is good for them. They have to be in at 11.15pm and two nights a week this is extended to midnight. We give them an hour after a dance, which is a reasonable time to see a girl home.” In November of that same year, “Students will fight a ‘curfew’ on their sex life,” was the headline in the Daily Mirror, reporting on an NUS conference motion that demanded “twenty-four-hour mixed visiting in halls of residence, no artificial segregation of student on the basis of sex [and] a key for every student to his or her own room.”

Image: Daily Mirror / British Newspaper Archive

Nevertheless, given the removal of the legal basis for in loco parentis, as well as the relative decline of traditional halls in favour of self-contained flats and the private rented sector, in almost all cases the most objectionable rules had been lifted by the end of the 1970s. Students at Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh were still campaigning to be allowed overnight guests as late as 1983 (the college decided to allow this on Friday and Saturday nights only), but they were now the exception. Moreover, whereas discipline had previously been the preserve of university staff, students were now often to be found on disciplinary panels, determining the fate of their peers.


In 2018 it is scarcely believable that even a measure of the paternalism of the 1950s and 1960s could be restored even if universities wished to do so, and it seems unlikely Sam Gyimah intended to infer a reintroduction of curfews and restrictions on overnight guests, still less a reduction in the age of majority.

All the same, it’s curious that a minister who has been so vocal on the need to ensure students are not “mollycoddled” by restrictions on freedom of speech, would invoke the spirit of an age when students were very much treated like the children they were in law.

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