In a recent speech to the Office for Students conference, Sam Gyimah the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation and the self-styled Minister for Students, said:

When these students arrive, for some this will be the first time they are away from home, the ‘uni experience’ can be disorientating and demanding, as it should be. But, 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.

The Latin phrase in loco parentis (in place of parents) suggests an intense duty of care that extends way beyond the academic aspects of university life. The Minister’s use of the term went down badly with lots of people who are worth listening to on higher education – you can see a Twitter thread including some of the great and the good of the higher education commentariat here. One of those commentating, David Malcolm of the National Union of Students (NUS), went on to write an excellent article about it for Wonkhe.

The term in loco parentis is, these days, more common in conversations about schooling than it is in conversations about higher education. Indeed, its rarity in discussions about higher education helps to explain why Sam Gyimah’s remark has been interpreted as signalling such a seismic shift.

This is because there are huge challenges in thinking that higher education institutions have a duty to act like parents, even if only for the early days of a full-time young undergraduate’s time in higher education.

  • Universities and other higher education institutions have a diverse range of missions, educate adults rather than children and are too big to keep close tabs on everyone all of the time.
  • For many people, it is the freedom of university life that is its biggest single appeal.
  • Acting in loco parentis would need additional resources that look unlikely to be forthcoming in the current policy environment.

At last week’s recent HEPI Policy Briefing Day, I asked for a show of hands on whether it was a smart move for Sam to talk about universities acting in loco parentis and no one thought it was while lots of people thought it wasn’t.

So the Minister’s comment is bold, if not foolhardy. His officials, on being told their Minister planned to focus on this angle of the student experience, must have been tempted to reply in terms out of Yes, Minister!, by saying ‘very interesting’ before trying to move the conversation on to other ways of driving further improvements in the student experience.

Yet, despite all this, I can’t help thinking the Minister has a point with which we should all engage. Consider this:

  • Until 1970, when the age of majority fell from 21 to 18, a high proportion of students were not yet adults and, even today, they and their pathway partners educate a number of students below the age of newer lower majority.
  • The current student funding system still does not regard young students as independent: entitlement to student support depends on one’s parental income until they are aged 25 at the time of initial enrolment.
  • New students themselves think universities have wide-ranging duties towards their welfare: three-quarters of applicants think their future university should contact their friends or family if they suffer an episode of mental ill-health (which is currently illegal for students aged over 18 because they are adults). Applicants do not want to be seen as entirely independent beings when they reach university.
  • Given the catastrophic decline in part-time learning, the proportion of students who are young, full-time school leavers has increased.

So perhaps a debate on the full duties of universities towards their students would be valuable. When speaking at universities, I sometimes try out the following three-stage thought experiment.

  1. First, imagine that the age of majority reverts to 21. This seems exceedingly unlikely, not least because children are regarded as maturing earlier and many age limits have declined in recent years (though the minimum age at which shops may sell tobacco has increased). I am not recommending that an increase in the age of majority actually happens. But stick with me.
  2. Secondly, compile a list of all the extra things each university would have to do for their students aged below the age of 21 if it were indeed the case that all those under 21 were, legally, not yet adults. Some of these, if they resemble everything that used to occur in the bad old days (hall of residence curfews, restrictions on guests, dress codes?), are likely to seem ridiculous.
  3. Thirdly, scrub out all of those that are too silly for words and hard to imagine in 2018. Then take a look at what is left. Can any of us say, hand on heart, that everything wise that we could be doing is being done?

After speaking the words quoted above, Sam Gyimah’s next comment was: ‘One area where I particularly think work needs to be done is in mental health.’ On this vitally important topic (which is the theme of two recent HEPI reports here and here), my own preference would be for a consultation on whether we have the right rules on disclosure when students face serious mental health challenges.

The harrowing (though fortunately rare) stories about instances of student suicide where the institution knew something was wrong but the parents did not are incredibly difficult to read – it is a topic that was usefully covered in an excellent Radio 4 iPM programme last year. Attending university is a transformative experience but it is so transformative that it can also induce high levels of anxiety (as shown in each year’s HEPI /HEA Student Academic Experience Survey), or worse. Just the other day, research suggested that the suicide rate among young students in the UK has overtaken the rate among non-students.

There may be times when such communication, if mandatory, would make life worse, not better, for the student. But surely it is time for a public conversation about whether university enrolment procedures should include either an opt-in or an opt-out question on disclosure? If we can do it for that other vitally important question of electoral registration, surely we can do it for the growing crisis of students’ mental health?