When do kids become adults? At 18? When they go to university or get a job? When their cognitive development is complete? When they finally leave home after boomerang-ing in and out of the nest for most of their 20s?
Over the years, one of the many criticisms I've heard of millennials and Generation Z is that we're growing up later. We don't tend to get married at 20 and have two children by age 25, like many of our parents did. Many of us pursue higher education and gap years, then stretch out our child-free years until our 30s. Paradoxically, we're heavily engaged in social issues like climate change and gender equity, but we also quite like going to bars where you can play mini-golf and arcade games.
There's a difference, however, between being 30 and still loving Harry Potter (me), and being 18 and leaving home to move to an unfamiliar city and start university. While many older millennials could be humorously accused of being "kidults", teenagers taking their first steps out into the big bad world may not be children, but they're still kids.
None of that is meant to patronise. I have deep respect for young people – this current batch of teenagers particularly. Generation Z appears to consist of a fairly wonderful bunch of human beings, who care deeply about the world they're inheriting. But growing up isn't easy, no matter how empathetic and switched on our young people may be.
There's a prevalent idea that once kids go to university, they should be forced to stand on their own two feet. I vividly remember sitting in my Year 13 English class, listening to my teacher yell at a group of boys who hadn't bothered to submit their homework. "If you do this next year," he warned, "no one will care, no one will chase you, and you'll fail."
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He was right, of course. And it is undeniably important for new students to take responsibility for their studies. But there's a difference between learning the hard way about missed deadline penalties and lying dead in your dormitory for weeks. Universities' core business involves preparing young adults for adulthood. In my view, that shouldn't just mean preparing them for a career.
We mustn't forget that higher learning institutions are (state-subsidised) businesses that make money out of young people and their families. They have a duty of care. And you can't tell me that 18-year-olds (or, in some cases, 17-year-olds) finish high school in November and arrive at university as fully-fledged adults in March.
While you can be hard-nosed about young people stepping up, surely no parent, however into personal responsibility they may be, wants their child to struggle to the point of suffering at university. While they should be encouraged to grow and evolve, young people should also be supported through the transition from youth to adulthood. Not thrown into the deep end to sink or swim.
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The Government's recently announced compulsory pastoral care code for university halls of residence places the onus back on universities to ensure the wellbeing of their students, but I don't believe it goes far enough. The tertiary sector should be held to a higher standard, and parents should demand better.
The question tertiary institutions should be asking isn't, "What do we need to do to comply?" but, "What are all the things that we could do to better support students?"
With the technology now available to students, university life is becoming more isolated. You can watch your lectures online. You can conduct your research in your bedroom through Google Scholar. It's the great irony of the digital age; in a time when we've never been more connected, loneliness abounds. And that can be dangerous for vulnerable young people.
Technology, however, presents numerous potential solutions to student pastoral care problems. For a start, automated systems could easily check on students away at university, providing a safety net and peace of mind for parents.
A system that automatically alerted pastoral care staff when a student's swipe card hadn't been used for more than three days without an explanation, for example, could then trigger an automated text message to check in with the student. If that text went unanswered for 24 hours, staff could then call the student, and if calls went unanswered, contact their next of kin.
Yes, when you're 18 and you've finally escaped from the rules, procedures and parental oversight of the family roost, the last thing you want is a Big Brother-type setup keeping tabs on you and tattling to your parents if you go and stay with your latest soulmate for a week without letting anyone know – and I imagine a number of the automated text messages would garner responses like "lost my card" and "staying with mates" – but surely that's better than something bad happening to you and your loved ones being none the wiser.
Similarly, a system that logged when students had missed all of their scheduled lectures, tutorials and other face-to-face meetings with staff for two weeks could trigger similar text alerts and phone calls. While university students undoubtedly need to take responsibility for their own behaviour – including their attendance– a system that noticed when students were absent and checked in with them could help to identify serious problems before they spiralled out of control.
But technology is only part of the answer. Beyond that, it's essential that tertiary institutions create environments where social support networks are strong and nobody falls through the cracks. Whether that's done by increasing the number of resident assistants, better resourcing pastoral care staff, increasing funding for campus mental health services, creating mentor/mentee systems, exchanging compulsory weekly messages with pastoral tutors, or any other creative schemes to strengthen bonds and connections, every little bit will help.
Most kids will get through uni just fine, but some won't. And no one should have to suffer – or die – alone.