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Is the modern university now all about students?

A visitor who hasn’t set foot on a campus for many years would be impressed by the wide array of services dedicated to helping students succeed nowadays, according to this excerpt from Course Correction: A Map for the Distracted University.


Imagine yourself a graduate returning to campus for your 50th reunion. You would exclaim about how some of your old classmates hadn’t changed, while trying to remember that lecture on Locke’s theory of personal identity over time, because you can’t quite figure out how this person talking to you is the same as the one who was your roommate for two years. For some things, like people, change is a ripening; for other things, it’s a transformation into something you could not have imagined.

Should you be given a campus tour, some buildings would be familiar, though the library would have many pieces of technology unimagined when you were thumbing through the card catalogues. You’d still find faculty offices. More than likely, there would be a much more prominent building called a “student centre,” a focal point for the campus in a way that a chapel might have been long ago. That would not be the only expression of the university’s commitment to students, however. Had you not visited your old haunts since graduation, you undoubtedly would find surprising the number of offices with names of unfamiliar positions, all related to the provision of services to students. Those services extend from recruitment through all aspects of their education to graduation and career advice. And most of them have to do with assisting them to succeed in ways unavailable to you when you arrived that late summer morning long ago.

Had you time to investigate these services thoroughly, you’d be impressed by the commitment to enabling success for current students. You’d be a little puzzled sometimes too. But how long and how deeply should you scratch your head? This attention to students and their experience is undoubtedly a good thing, but how does it relate to the fundamental knowledge functions of the university? Is it an unmitigated good? How is the transformation of the campus actually working?

Serving students

The particular organization and array of services for students depends, of course, on the university and the character of its student body. For some institutions, recruitment and retention are a challenge, and resources are directed to measures that assist at-risk students to succeed. The populations of some schools are residential, or significantly international, or culturally diverse. In what follows I am not attempting to set out all the services a university should provide, but instead to develop an account of the kinds of services to be found at a representative (if only notional) group of universities – although the account does reflect my experience in a large urban university.

It’s difficult to come up with a classification system covering all the services on offer. One set has to do with advising and counselling, another with physical and mental well-being, another with financial and career issues, yet another with social and recreational opportunities – but the list can’t be neatly organized because the scope of activities and responsibilities is so large. We can start, though, with those services most closely related to the educational functions of the university in teaching and learning.

Among those essential student services, we’d want to place academic advising about degree and program requirements. That would appear to be straightforward, but the business of steering students through regulations, petitions and appeals is complicated by the predilection of the university for regulations and the ingenuity of young people for getting things mixed up. So a seemingly simple problem can have multiple dimensions.

The ability to complete a course, for instance, can require a loan or grant; financial counselling might be necessary. Maybe the problem is poor performance, so referral to the writing centre is appropriate. With a less structured experience in university, time management requires attention. Or perhaps it’s notetaking or writing tests. The learning strategist, in another office, can help with that. Perhaps there is a need for accommodation because of physical, developmental or psychological constraints; then the accessibility office can assist.

Some services, then, deal with academic issues such as degree regulations and course selection, and others with the conditions that impede progress in learning and make it difficult to succeed, especially in undergraduate education. Those conditions might arise from lack of preparation in earlier schooling, or other disadvantages, requiring services that are remedial or accommodating. The percentage of students for whom such services are helpful depends, as I noted, on an institution’s population.

More pervasive issues, however, have recently attracted a good deal of public attention: sexual violence and mental health. Each has required universities to increase services to their students. In Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, incidents of sexual harassment and assault, usually involving students as perpetrators, have surfaced in recent years, provoking justifiably strong condemnation and even government directives on policy and procedures. It has been difficult to ascertain how widespread are instances of sexual violence for students because not all (perhaps the majority) are not reported or (worse) not recorded, although it is not at all difficult to state categorically that one case is one too many. According to a U.S. survey of 150,000 students, the majority of incidents go unreported for different reasons: embarrassment, emotional difficulty, concern about legal proceedings, because it “wasn’t serious.” The survey found that almost a quarter of women undergraduate students had experienced non-consensual sexual contact since they entered university. Other sources might not have the same figure, but it’s commonly claimed that one in three women will experience some form of sexual assault in her lifetime.

There is no doubt at all that this is a pervasive, difficult social problem in need of addressing at many levels. And since sexual violence is more common among younger people of university age, universities and colleges cannot ignore the problem any more than they can ignore issues of mental health and well-being; indeed, there are direct consequences of sexual misconduct upon the mental and emotional states of their victims. Universities have in recent years been reviewing and improving their policies on sexual harassment and assault, and the support they are able to offer to those who come forward with disclosures. More resources are dedicated to offices with this mandate across the university sector; in Ontario the government requires universities and colleges to establish policies and services to deal with complaints and provide support. These initiatives demonstrate a heightened attention to students and their well-being. How this sits with the university’s fundamental purpose is a question we’ll need to think about, especially where deep social problems are concerned. Let’s return for now, though, to that second pervasive challenge, mental health.

If our society has kept much guilty silence about sexual violence, issues of student mental and emotional well-being by contrast are widely discussed and reported. Any university advisor or dean of students can provide evidence of the alarming number of students in need of assistance. The spectrum of issues is wide, from pronounced anxiety and crippling self-doubt, to suicide. This generation of undergraduates is more medicated, more self-harming and more suicidal than one would like to think, and their numbers increase steadily every year. A few are clinically mentally ill and need hospitalization – a service that the university cannot itself provide, any more than it can perform appendectomies. Undoubtedly alcohol and drugs are implicated in endeavours to deal with emotional distress, but many students do seek counselling and assistance from the university. Resources for these services are stretched, with higher priority given to serious cases that involve high risk. In some institutions the less risky find it hard to get timely appointments for psychological services.

It appears that universities with residence students might find greater need for personal support services, partly because students are usually some distance from home and its familiar forms of assistance, and partly because they can be challenged by time management, roommate interactions, or too familiar temptations. International students are especially vulnerable to loneliness and anxiety if the culture and language are unfamiliar; for some, the very notion of mental illness might be problematic.

All this seems to signal an epidemic of emotional fragility and insecurity of the self among undergraduates. It’s difficult to pinpoint the causes. These students are, by and large, better “cared for” than were previous generations. Their parents are much more involved in their lives, even at university – the hovering helicopters become on occasion irresistible bulldozers, or so one hears. Perhaps unrealizable levels of expectation have been thrust upon them; perhaps social media have generated idealized images of others, increasing a sense of inadequacy in a competitive generation. Traditional institutions of support might be weak: the family, the local community, the synagogue, mosque or church might not hold the same power for stability and growth as they once did. Avuncular counsel, whether from relatives or trusted figures, might be supplanted by professional but impersonal advice, psychologizing or medicalizing what have always been the usual human perplexities and uncertainties. I throw up possible explanations, but only to report common-room conversation among university staff and faculty who care about educating their students in this milieu – a milieu veneered with their paper-thin applications boasting of their accomplishments but covering over their silent, whimpering insecurities.

Of course this malaise doesn’t lurk in the heart and bowels of every student who looks confident and well put together. And there are other populations coming to universities than the one I am most familiar with. With what’s inelegantly known as the massification of higher education, a far greater percentage of youth in their late teens and early twenties is seeking university degrees, and they don’t all come from folds or pockets in the social fabric like the one just described. But they will have their own anxieties and uncertainties, and universities will have to develop services to address those needs.

And there’s more

So far, the services for students I have discussed involve giving advice and support, broadly speaking, for academic success and for coping with the multiform barriers to that success – barriers arising from mental-health concerns, trauma or assault. The array of services is much greater than that, however. I’ve said nothing about food services, housing and residences; nothing about all the activities that occur in dozens of clubs and societies, nothing about physical fitness and wellness, nothing about sport and the huge role it plays, especially in U.S. collegiate life. Some of these – such as housing for small residential liberal arts colleges – are essential conditions for carrying out the university’s educational functions, and some provide important experiences that enrich learning generally. Others, such as career offices, provide a welcome service to graduating students, but are more tangential to the functions of the university. The same with collegiate sports: they create spirit, loyalty, and cash, but it’s hard to see how the knowledge functions of the university would be seriously diminished without them.

These assorted services all share one feature: they require resources, and lots of them. That includes dedicated and appropriately trained staff. For some years, parallel professionals have been emerging in the wide area of student services, especially in offices of deans of students. Personnel costs are not trivial for universities. Nor are space and maintenance costs for all the activities related to students outside the classroom. Funds must come from one source or other. The willingness of universities to meet this obligation is yet one more indication of the seriousness with which students are taken in the 21st century.

This is a slightly altered version of the original text, excerpted from Course Correction: A Map for the Distracted University by Paul Gooch, reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press, 2019.


Paul Gooch
Dr. Gooch is president emeritus and a professor of philosophy at Victoria University at the University of Toronto.
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  1. Helen / November 23, 2019 at 10:15

    At what point does it become acceptable to examine the suitability of university studies for students requiring this intensity of support in order to complete a university education?

  2. Charles Yorkson / November 28, 2019 at 09:27

    The one place that no one wants to devote resources, and the place that would dramatically improve so-called “student experience,” is in reducing class size. Anyone who has taught the same class with 18 students and 38 students can tell you the difference in “student experience,” not to mention “faculty experience,” which absolutely no one seems to care about.

    When’s the last time an administrator spoke of improving the experience of faculty in the classroom, other than asking about technology? I would suggest that if faculty are teaching classes that they enjoy teaching that students will enjoy taking them.

    Just a hunch…developed over 25 years of teaching…which is no fun any longer.

  3. Helen / December 20, 2019 at 23:25

    Charles Yorkson, you raise a really important point. I hadn’t realised just how important it was until this past semester when, for whatever reason, my class sizes were all freakishly small. It gave me an opportunity to really get to know my students, which in turn allowed me to demonstrate how the material we were covering related to their own interests and goals.

    The small classes also allowed me to recognise when individual students’ behaviour patterns changed, which in turn allowed me to follow up with individual students. This turned out to be really important in the lives of a few of them. For instance, the one whose best friend had committed suicide. He hadn’t realised that this did qualify him for accommodations and had prepared to eat the lost semester, with the failures showing up on his transcript. By reaching out to him, I was able to clarify for him how to access the accommodations and supports he required.

    Similarly, a student who had surgery mid-semester and didn’t know that she could request accommodations for medical purposes without specifying the procedure was able to access the accommodations she required without having to forgo her right to medical privacy. Neither these, nor a few other cases, would have been possible if I’d had my usual class sizes, simply because I wouldn’t have gotten to know the students well enough to recognise subtle signs and changes in behaviour patterns which suggested that something might be amiss.

    We’re so wrapped up in the “mental health crisis” and “the student experience” that we’re missing what is right in front of us. The student experience lacks sufficient human connection. Digitizing their environments, throwing resources at students and whatnot are not going to help if the students are feeling lost with nobody to point them in the right direction.

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