Academic studies do not take place in isolation

By Jacqueline Saville. Jacqueline lives in Leeds, UK. She works in a support role at a UK university.

All schools and universities operate within a society and within that society’s behavioural norms and expectations. Consequently I would argue that schools and universities have a responsibility to educate their students on social behaviour alongside the academic, but to different extents and for different reasons.

Although schools and universities are often seen as adjacent parts of the same education system, there are many differences in structure and purpose that mean they need to be considered separately. At the most fundamental level, broadly speaking in the UK the students in schools are children while those in universities are adults. In practice there may be little distinction between the oldest school pupils and the youngest undergraduate students but in terms of expectations they are worlds apart.

Social behaviour includes how to treat others, how to conduct oneself around others, and to some extent how to be a responsible citizen. A school pupil who hasn’t reached the legal age of majority is not yet seen by society as a fully-formed citizen, they have no voting rights for instance. It seems clear therefore that they are in the process of being moulded into a person who is somehow deemed suitable to take their place in society, and that alongside the example and guidance of their parents, the school should be responsible for instilling part of this social education in them. Indeed some schools are seen as desirable by parents partly due to the moral teachings, good behaviour and strict discipline associated with them. A child’s behaviour and ability to get on with others may be a deciding factor in how they are dealt with by the school or even whether or not a school takes them on.

By contrast a university (in England and Wales, at least) is almost always educating a legal adult. In fact there are a great many students who begin undergraduate courses in their early twenties or beyond, and postgraduates often live outside the parental home or are already parents themselves. UK universities select students mainly on academic ability (with some leeway for widening participation purposes), usually without an interview, and social preparedness is unlikely to be a deciding factor. Whereas school education is a standard component of a child’s development, university attendance is not a given, and certainly not at a particular age. Their time at university may broaden their minds, impart specialist knowledge and develop critical thinking, but university students should be capable of taking part in society in a civilised fashion before they set foot on campus – if they never happened to attend university they would still be expected by society to behave as responsible adults throughout their lives.

Naturally in many universities there will be students who have been brought up in a society with different social norms, and for the avoidance of misunderstanding it seems reasonable in this case for a university to provide an overview on arrival of cultural differences including social behaviour. Depending on the student’s background there may be elements of behaviour that are acceptable in their host country that they are not used to at home and vice versa. Many of these students will have received guidance beforehand, but for instance only ten years ago I met a postgraduate who had been told by his embassy that people in Britain wore bowler hats and carried black umbrellas, and he was unprepared for the largely informal society he encountered.

Arguably if a university feels the need to address social behaviour formally outside of the situation described above, it is to rectify a failing in schools or in extreme cases to deal with sociopaths. Either a particular student has transgressed and the university is taking the opportunity to explain why they expect better behaviour, or there is a feeling that a wider cohort would benefit from behavioural guidance e.g. consent workshops. In either case, the question surely must be how have these students failed to learn acceptable behaviour before they arrive at university? Unless they are deliberately behaving in a way they know to be wrong (in which case education on social behaviour from the university is unlikely to be effective) their school must have turned them out into society with a poor grasp of behavioural expectations. Presumably they have then also failed to pick up these cues from prior social interaction or the media. Either these students have behavioural problems, which is a different matter entirely (and again, not one likely to be rectified by education on behaviour from the university), or their school has failed in its duty to develop a child into a responsible adult.

In an ideal world a university would only teach social behaviour either as part of a general orientation for overseas students or alongside individual disciplinary proceedings, but in a school both social and academic strands of learning should be equally important. Educating a child to the best of their ability (whether academic or vocational) should include educating them as to how a responsible citizen behaves.

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