Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Feel-Bad Factor

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Feel-Bad Factor

Article excerpt

Universities' zeal to address an ever-rising tide of student 'vulnerabilities' may do real harm, says Kathryn Ecclestone.

Ten years ago, my ears pricked up when I heard a vice-chancellor tell staff that students admitted via his university's widening participation programme needed careful attention because they had "emotional baggage" that created barriers to learning.

A decade later, universities have become subject to what Kate Brown, a lecturer in social policy at the University of York, calls a "zeitgeist of vulnerability". At all levels of study, it is common to hear even privileged, high-achieving students refer to themselves as vulnerable because they are anxious, stressed and nervous. Increasingly, universities' welcome addresses begin with empathetic assumptions about how students must be feeling before outlining how much support they will get. Not only do the life-changing possibilities of study come a long way down the list of induction topics, they have themselves become a source of vulnerability: one university leaflet tells students to seek counselling if new ideas and ways of thinking make them "uncomfortable".

More people are being formally defined as vulnerable, while universities feed the idea via courses on dealing with perfectionism, procrastination and stress, building resilience and solving relationship problems (including with dissertation supervisors). Many have established online cognitive behavioural therapy courses and guidelines for setting up self- help groups while others are considering transition role-play sessions for students leaving university.

Vulnerability has also become a popular topic for practitioner and academic research. Diverse psycho-emotional threats, such as being a non- traditional student or experiencing stressful forms of assessment, lead to injunctions for more support, adjustments to teaching and assessment methods and appeal procedures.

Counselling services are under pressure, and institutions' support services are being subsumed into a bigger "wellbeing" portfolio of academic and study skills provision, disability support and medical services. Universities see such services as essential to student retention, achievement - and satisfaction ratings.

As the head of medical services at a Russell Group university told me recently, ideas for supporting new vulnerabilities come from all corners of universities, generating new systems and activities. …

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