• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Exam stress? Here’s a cat you can cuddle

Earlier this year, a colleague from Oxford asked me if I had heard about Wadham college’s “welfare cat”, Maisie. At first I thought she was joking but I soon discovered that, according to the college website, Maisie was “proving invaluable . . . helping students to relax, making them laugh and providing them with unconditional attention”. College chaplain Wendy Wale says: “Maisie got to know nervous admissions candidates and was instrumental in helping them to feel at ease here.” Welcome to a world where soft toys and therapeutic pets have become an integral feature of university life.

One of the most dramatic developments in higher education is the trend of treating undergraduates as children rather than as young adults. The drift towards infantilisation first emerged in the US, were some educators claimed that the current cohort of students was less able to adapt to university than the generations that preceded them. More than a decade ago, Neil Howe and William Strauss were arguing that millennials find it difficult to flourish in the relatively unstructured environment of higher education.

The implication of the argument that undergraduates today lack the capabilities needed for unstructured and independent learning is that universities should operate under the presumption that their students are, in fact, biologically mature children. Consequently, in many parts of the Anglo-American university world, there are strong pressures to extend paternalistic practice. Last year, Eric Posner, a leading legal scholar at the University of Chicago, declared that “students today are more like children than adults and need protection”. Posner contends that today’s students are not ready for independence and should therefore be morally guided by their institutions — a view widely shared by university administrators.

Educators in the UK also promote the conviction that we can no longer regard the current cohort of undergraduates as independent young adults. For example, in 2013, Anthony Seldon, then head of Wellington College, launched a campaign to stem what he characterised as increasing levels of psychological distress among British university students. This was based on a survey of secondary school leaders, many of whom raised concerns about the level of pastoral support on offer at higher education institutions. Seldon observed that “there is a belief among vice chancellors that young people are adults and can fend for themselves”, but “18-year-olds today are a lot less robust and worldly wise”.

Seldon’s argument was echoed last year by Richard Harman, headmaster of Uppingham School and chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference. He stated that “we all know school and college leavers do not magically turn into fully fledged adults the minute they step out of the classroom and into the lecture hall”. The implication of his argument was that young people could not be expected to make the transition from school to university without a paternalistic system of support.

The process of transition to university life is increasingly portrayed as analogous to the problems that some children experience when they make their way from primary education to big school, which is why numerous universities offer the services of transitional counsellors. Their argument is that many young students arriving on campus cannot cope on their own.

“The counseling team are fully aware of the importance of managing transition and are here to help you find the way ahead,” claims the University of Bath’s counseling service. As an illustration of the kind of the transitions that now require professional support, it mentions entering university as a first-year undergraduate, the move of second-year students from campus-based residence to living in town, final-year students returning after being away on placement, and newly-arrived postgraduate students. “It could be that feelings of self-confidence are quite threatened by the unfamiliarity of new surroundings and new people,” warns the service.

If even final-year students and postgraduates lack the maturity and coping mechanisms necessary for independent living, exactly when do they become adults?

Campus life has been reorganised around the task of servicing, supporting and, in effect, infantilising students, whose wellbeing allegedly requires institutional intervention. Unfortunately, the tendency to treat students as children can incite some young people to play the role assigned to them. If students are not expected to cope with the transition to university life and the subsequent challenges thrown up in academic learning, then many of them will adopt the role of a biologically mature child.

One remarkable illustration of this are the rituals created for reducing exam stress on campuses throughout the Anglo-American world. Such initiatives often involve providing students with opportunities to hold soft toys, pet cuddly animals, and mess around in inflatable playgrounds and bubblewrap popping stations. It seems that the provision of special “puppy rooms” for stressed-out students has become a mandatory feature of campus life. Trinity College, Dublin allows students to spend 15 minutes in a de-stressing puppy room set up before exams. At the University of Central Lancashire, the students’ union organised a puppy room for the Stressed Out Students (SOS) campaign. And at Nottingham Trent University, the students’ union offers a micro-pig room that allows “students to interact with the animals to relieve revision-related anxiety”.

Across the Atlantic, the rituals of stress-busting are also flourishing. The University of Buffalo placed two dozen therapy dogs at the disposal of students. They also offered activities “known to reduce stress”, such as knitting classes and workshops where students could play with jigsaw puzzles and Lego. In some American universities, pet therapy has become institutionalised throughout the year. At Emory, there are dogs available in the counselling centres. Harvard medical school and Yale law school both have resident therapy dogs in their libraries. At the University of Canberra in Australia, pre-exam stress-relief activities included a petting zoo, bubblewrap popping, balloon bursting and a special session titled, “How can you be stressed when you pat a goat?”

There is nothing inherently wrong with university students cuddling animals or playing with Lego to relieve exam stress. But these rituals, which give students permission to behave as if they are infants in a nursery, have the effect of reinforcing the belief that they are not yet expected to behave as young adults who can deal with the challenges thrown up by academic life. Encouraging students to find solace in the playpen undermines their capacity to acquire the habit of independent living and infantilises academic life. What we need instead is an approach that takes students more seriously and expects them to be able to act as adults and who possess the capacity for moral autonomy and independent study.

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