Sever the ties that bind young minds
In the late 1980s, I was sitting with a group of German postgraduates
at the university refectory in Darmstadt. After a good-natured discussion
about the transformation of historical memory in postwar Germany,
we went to a nearby bar and chatted about life.
I was deeply struck by how different these students were from the
postgrads I had encountered in Britain and North America. Some of
these German postgrads jokingly referred to themselves as "students
Two were in their late 30s, and one 31-year-old student proudly
boasted that, except for the odd temporary job, he had never worked
in his life.
As a group, they were entirely at ease living a life of extended
adolescence. Most of them lived at home and appeared, if not happy,
at least resigned to a life of perpetual dependence. What disturbed
me about their attitude was not that they were living at home or
their luxurious attitude towards the pace of their academic work
but their lack of aspiration for an independent life.
Today, the experience of this group of German postgrads could be
seen as a positive example of lifelong learning. But the tendency
to promote learning as a lifelong process may well obscure the fact
that real intellectual development requires periods of intense studying
by people who are passionate about their subject and have acquired
the habit of independence of thought. Unfortunately, the kind of
learning that involves exploration and experimentation is not always
consistent with being an eternal student and living a life of delayed
adolescence in the parental home.
Not all students who live at home opt for a life of delayed adolescence.
In many parts of Europe, it is the norm for students, and even postgraduates,
to remain at home during their years of study.
And students who come from an economically insecure background
have little choice but to remain at home. As student numbers expand
in Britain and the proportion of students from a working-class background
increases, the percentage of undergraduates living at home is also
likely to rise. Of course, it is not just students who find economic
independence an elusive commodity - university staff suffer, too.
Low academic salaries and temporary contracts make it difficult
for postgrads and young members of staff to enjoy a life of economic
Nevertheless, the growing tendency for members of the university
community to live with their parents is not simply the direct consequence
of economic impoverishment and insecurity. It reflects changing
attitudes towards higher education, studying and student identity.
Today's undergraduates are frequently regarded as adolescents who
cannot be expected to cope with life as adults. And postgraduates
are being treated as an elderly version of undergraduates.
For this reason, postgraduate education increasingly resembles
its undergraduate counterpart. The infantilisation of postgraduate
education is most strikingly symbolised by the growing significance
attached to coursework. Even a decade ago, it was possible for postgrads
to gain their doctorates without going on a single course. Today,
we no longer trust postgrads to pursue their work without the formal
structures of what once used to pass for undergraduate education.
They are provided with what managers euphemistically call "support"
- compulsory courses and a variety of bureaucratic monitoring devices.
New regulation and codes of behaviour have been devised to ensure
that supervision is structured and clearly recorded. In this way,
it is being transformed into the kind of instrument used to deal
with naughty children.
Supervisors are also under pressure to live by the paper trail.
The new regime of postgraduate education, which does little to
cultivate independence, reflects changing cultural attitudes towards
what we expect of young people. The same forces are at work in relation
to the infantilisation of students' living arrangements. The clearest
manifestation of changing cultural attitudes towards the status
of young people is the growing acceptance of the practice of living
at home. Today, more than 1 million children, many approaching their
40th birthday, continue to live at home. Moreover, about 64 per
cent of university graduates return home after completing their
studies. Just five years ago, less than half this figure - 30 per
cent - returned home after graduation.
According to conventional wisdom, the rise in the number of stay-at-home
students is a result of economic forces - student poverty, high
fees or the rise in rents and property prices. But decisions about
whether or not to leave home are not all reducible to economic factors,
and in many cases our beliefs about why people live at home may
be based on false assumptions.
Take the argument that housing has become so expensive that young
people are driven back to the family home. According to the Social
Trends survey, the proportion of household expenditure devoted to
"housing, water and fuel" has fallen significantly relative
to real incomes. Over the past 30 years, while household income
has risen by about one and a quarter times, household spending on
the cost of housing (housing, water and fuel) has risen by only
a half. It appears then that the cost of housing has fallen significantly
relative to real incomes.
The fall in the relative cost of housing does not mean that university
students can live in luxury. But it shows that the reason why a
growing proportion of students opt to live at home has little to
do with the fact that it is economically much harder to live an
independent life today than it was 30 years ago.
It has never been easy for most students to leave the family home.
What has changed is students' aspiration for independence and their
desire to strike out on their own. This is a broad cultural trend
that influences even the behaviour of graduates who are in paid
employment and still living at home.
But does this matter? It can be argued that whether a postgrad
lives at home or with friends has little impact on university life.
Living at home need not be inconsistent with the pursuit of intellectual
independence. However, placed beside the growing cultural tendency
to expand adolescence and dependence into middle age, it cannot
but have a negative impact.
Intellectual development and scholarship are associated with the
development of knowledge and the pursuit of truth. The cultivation
of intellectual independence is inextricably linked to this pursuit
and is embedded in a form of self-consciousness that is inconsistent
with a state of perpetual adolescence. At some point, we need to
leave our familiar surroundings behind - if not physically, at least
mentally. Among other things, that is what a university education
ought to help us to achieve.
in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 16 January 2004