This article is more than 2 years old

Why do we treat students like children?

Should we lean in or back away when students need support, or food, or friends? Jim Dickinson reflects on a week in Denmark, Sweden and Norway with student leaders.
This article is more than 2 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

When you take a bunch of students’ union officers and the staff that support them on a study tour around Scandinavia, a kind of dangerous and deceptive seduction takes place that really ought to be resisted.

Just like an intoxicating holiday romance, it’s probably important to get a bit of distance and perspective on things before we all start interrogating the immigration implications of moving out to another country. The camaraderie of the coach trip can cloud clarity of thinking and prevent real challenge to what’s being presented – something that’s made worse by the sense of freedom and release that accompanies the closing credits of a pandemic.

The places and people you’re visiting are putting on their best face when they tell you what works or how things are done and funded. Comparisons between systems or structures or provision seem simpler than they really are. And what can sound like a great idea in Uppsala or Aarhus might not even work in Oslo, let alone in Durham, Portsmouth or Salford.

His majesty the pig

There are moments where dreaming replaces learning – like the sensation of walking into Chateau Neuf, an entirely student run theatre, arts and meeting space with a vast 1,000 seater theatre – or coming across the student-operated tree houses and cabins of Chalmers students’ union that allow students to book to spend time with nature.

There are powerful moments of shame. Arriving into Norway, the international coordinator for its version of NUS casually mentioned that places for 1,000 Ukrainian students to transfer and complete their degrees had been fully funded by government, tuition and maintenance all included, putting the puny efforts of our government and sector to shame.

And its inspiring Students at Risk (StAR) programme – that gives students who have experienced persecution, threats or expulsion from their university because of peaceful activism a chance to finish their education abroad and fight for human rights and democratic change – gives context to our lazy claims to civilising soft power just because an international agent has persuaded someone to fork out £1,750 a month to “live” in a box room in London.

Nobody is alone here

That’s not to say that no lessons can be learned. The sense of student togetherness and community we observed, for example, may well be better built through some of the welcome activity we saw – which had much more of a focus on human connection than the UK’s tendency to sell students a wristband.

The focus on education was interesting. Few of the students’ unions we met, either local or national, described their role as student voice or representation – those were merely tactics for “making the study environment better” or “securing the best education for students”. And the focus on student rights and their enforcement reminds us that while giving students power to get their marks back on time or demand more study space is sometimes stupidly framed as “consumerist” in the UK, other frames are available.

One puzzle on the trip was why the student leaders that we met all seemed so naturally assertive and powerful – taking the idea of the university as “partner” in their stride. Some put all of that down to their national culture – when your Crown Prince rides the tube, maybe spouting off at a board of governors is less of an issue. Some figured it was about not having to worry about marketisation, or having student influence enshrined in law, that did the trick. In Norway’s otherwise almost exclusively student volunteer culture, paying student representatives for their meeting and preparation time certainly conveys a respect for the role(s) that is absent in the UK.

And perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate what it is that we do well. All three countries seemed comfortable with a discussion on equality, not so much with one on equity – not wanting people to “stick out”, not “seeing colour” or having a culture that publishes people’s tax returns but doesn’t monitor the ethnicity or socio-economics of student participation gave us fleeting moments of relief that perhaps there was something the Scandis could learn from us.

Child’s play

But what was impossible to avoid was the sense that students are just trusted more in Scandinavia – allowing them to build communities, facilities and social capital that we increasingly seem to regard as a luxurious, indulgent or fanciful optional extra in UK HE. Maybe that’s about their average age, maybe it’s related to their relative social homogeneity, and maybe that’s about funding and regulatory regimes that mean that when some of that goes wrong, there are fewer negative consequences. But maybe something else is going on too.

The need for students to belong, feel welcome, be able to eat inexpensively, have a safe home to live in or get support when they needed it was as universal as we might expect. Yet while many of the solutions did involve lobbying for better funding or campaigning for changes to university policies, there was also a focus on supporting students to develop and deliver solutions for each other.

For every mental health service we saw, there was a student breakfast club on offer too. Study skills seminars, creative careers events, even personal tutoring was more often than not peer-run and delivered. I’m old enough to remember when that kind of reciprocity and responsibility was the sort of thing we thought higher education was supposed to deliver for students. But at the risk of coming on all “big society”, I’m increasingly coming to the view that the relentless pressure on “providers” to infantilisingly “provide” things for students is as counterproductive as it is impossible.

All of us – from those signing on the line on a building refurb to those of us running a catering tender, from those of us considering funding for counselling to others considering how to put on a perfect welcome week – we would all do well to ask ourselves whether we’re running an adult learning environment or not.

And next time a university or its SU recruits a new staff member gets a company in to run a thing, we should question whether what we are proposing is run for students hadn’t ought to have “by students” tacked on to that too.

When we treat students like children and do things for them, they shake their rattle, and demand more, and yet learn little. When we’re brave enough to trust them and treat them like the adults we pretend that attending university causes them to become, they almost always do clever and innovative things with a rapidity and commitment that us “professionals” might never match.

Over on Wonkhe SUs, Jim has been running a daily log on findings and reflections from the study tour.

4 responses to “Why do we treat students like children?

  1. “When we treat students like children and do things for them, they shake their rattle, and demand more, and yet learn little”

    Sadly it’s the direction of travel in UK HE – to make it more and more like ‘big school’ and that is going to get worse as Universities get involved in running schools.

    I was involved in a regular exchange with a Belgian University – their students would come to us for a week and ours would go out. We did endless planning and risk assessment and how the logistics of going out there would work in terms of the group travel.

    The Belgian students would just turn up at our university after making their own way and the staff would often arrive a few days later!

  2. Totally agree on treating students like adults and not patronising them. This includes valuing them for their work to the university community. Sadly the “let them learn to fish for themselves” often is a budget saving move rather then about empowering students.

    In Scandinavia, students also given better bursaries and support which frees them up from having to take paid jobs meaning that they can contribute to the university community. In the UK (especially England but Scotland to a lesser extent) students ARE being adults – not the Scandinavian adult model that focuses on contributing to their communities but the British adult model where worrying about covering rent or which bill you don’t pay this month.

  3. It’s not so much a matter of treating people like children instead of adults; it’s more that we treat them as isolated individual consumers instead of helping them build communities. If a student has a problem, we look to provide services to that person alone, whereas a better solution may be to help students as a whole to help each other. It’s a service model that’s based on corporations selling services to customers, rather than a model of growing an academic community together.

    As Sara notes above, the idea of encouraging students to participate in the academic community and supporting them via that community is quite different from letting them sink or swim by themselves. The sink or swim model is just another form of individualism.

    I don’t mean to downplay the importance of good services, of efficiency and value for money, and I certainly don’t intend to insult the people who are working hard to provide these services. I just think we need to re-evaluate what our services should be trying to achieve.

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