If I think back about my time at university, the best moments were those quiet, unremarkable, in between, unstructured expanses of time where not really much happened.
It was watching the Chase after class. It was eating tea in the front room with my six other housemates. It was just not doing very much at all but finding it deliriously fun to just spend time with people I liked.
I worked on and off during university but this time to hang out was made possible because I could afford to do it. Not only was my maintenance grant comparatively generous, I also received £4,000 a year from my university because I got good grades and I previously lived with my mam who earned a modest income. My rent was only £65 per week too which didn’t feel cheap at the time but does now in retrospect.
The whole point is I had time not to have to do things. I was also the last generation of £3,000 tuition fees which is also probably part of the reason I did not feel the urgent need to do CV building activities of all kinds.
Reclaiming our time
Although so much time was unstructured it wasn’t without value. In fact, it was valuable precisely because there wasn’t a pressure to fill it. It was these times in which I made friendships that I hold to this day, it was time to get to know the city which is now my permanent home, and it was a big space to do things for the sake of doing them.
It’s not that university was always easy. And I also recognise that this experience is miles away from what many students with caring responsibilities or work commitments experienced. But, I think this time is not accounted for fully in the way we think of the current university experience.
In a podcast on her book Hanging Out the author Sheila Liming argues that changes to the world of work, changes to technology, our social desire for independence, and a wider commodification of time, has a negative impact on building communities. I think this phenomenon is true for higher education too.
There has been a lot of discussion about the impact of the cost of living on the student experience. Multiple studies summarised by Wonkhe show a sharp decline in social activity and a moderate decline in joining student societies. The phenomenon I am describing here is slightly different. It is more like the opportunity students have to choose to not do anything with any social or economic value in and of itself. To just hang out.
The squeezing of free time is the harbinger of the slow death of hanging out. Work by the Sutton Trust shows that 49 per cent of students missed classes this academic year in order to do paid work. If students are missing usually mandated structured activities it’s fair to assume this also impacts unstructured time.
The other financial impact is that unstructured time is more expensive. It is more expensive than ever to sit around a shared home with the heating on. Communal meals might be good for saving money but the price of food and non-alcoholic drinks rose by 16.4 per cent in the twelve months to October 2022. It can feel like spending time not doing much is a luxury.
There is also a drumbeat that doing something is always more valuable than doing nothing. Usually, this is framed as getting a part-time job, leading a society, volunteering, and all those types of activities are useful for CV building in a competitive job-market. I’ve seen more than one introductory talk to students that begins with a countdown of days until graduation and then sets out everything that can be squeezed in that time.
All of these activities are good for the future, they can even be fun, and students are increasingly choosing to do them, but we should also be mindful about what is lost when we lose unstructured time.
The losers in the busyfication of the student calendar are those that do not have the resources to not be busy. The reason hanging out is so important is that it gives students autonomy to build communities and friendships on their own terms. It allows students to build deep friendships that only come through the mundane and repetitive exposure to other people. It is one of the few times in life that many people will have the time to build these kinds of relationships.
The question isn’t just how to make students less busy but how to democratise hanging out. Clearly, bringing down bills, easing the cost of living crisis, and increasing maintenance grants would all help, but some of these areas are out of the reach of students’ unions and universities, and many pages have been written on this topic already.
Killing the days
I’d encourage institutions of all kinds to think about how they take a design approach to let more hanging out happen. One area is the design of shared accommodation and communal spaces. The rise of contained flats in the name of security makes a lot of sense in some respects but the rejoinder of this trend is that it limits the space for spending time together. This is equally true of student accommodation where a living room has been converted into an extra bedroom.
The whole point of hanging out is that it shouldn’t have a bar to entry. Amid all the discussions of how to get students on campus I’m often struck that as I tour the country for work there are numerous campuses where there are few indoor places to sit, other than a library, before nine or after five. Before we get to a campus offer or outlets, having somewhere I can have a coffee with my friends and feel welcome is a good place to start. This would be particularly helpful for students with irregular schedules; part-time students, placement students, student parents, and the like.
There are innumerable other measures that can be taken but the whole point is to facilitate hanging out and recognise its value. This also means removing a moral judgement on doing nothing as part of a balanced lifestyle. This might be reviewing hardship funding that ensures students can just exist. It might mean reviewing teaching blocks to intentionally free up expanses of space. Or it might just mean tweaking the language we use to be more inclusive of community building in both unstructured and structured forms.
The subtitle of Sheila Limming’s book is The Radical Power of Killing Time. Unless we take deliberate steps to preserve time for doing nothing it will become a luxury afforded to the best off which in turn will undermine the very community building that structured time is dedicated to.
To hang out is an assertion that individuals should have the freedom, funds, and capacity to dictate their own experience. It’s time we treat this assertion as a defining political issue within higher education.