As students start suing their parents for pocket money, Jennie Bristow argues that they should grow up
The University of Neverneverland
Patrick MacDonald, a 20-year-old law student at Aberdeen University, has been granted Legal Aid to sue his mother Margaret for £400 a month. The reason? That his grant, worth £1739 a year, was not enough for him to live on.
The case is being brought under the Family Law Act (Scotland), which allows students up to the age of 25 to sue their parents for the cost of their education, a law that does not apply in the rest of Britain. Patrick MacDonald has lived apart from his mother, a solicitor with the Scottish office, for five years, living instead with his unemployed father. The peculiarities of the case suggest that most sons will not be going around suing their mums in the near future. But you do not have to go into the legal details to see that the case symbolises a new and worrying trend in the attitudes of young people growing up - or not growing up, as the case may be.
The assumption behind suing your mother for alimony is that you have a right to that money. Although you may be over 18, and so well over the age at which your parents legally have to provide for your welfare, you still see yourself as dependent upon them for your upkeep. In other words, you may legally be an adult, but financially, emotionally and actually you are still a child while in higher education.
Where does this widespread assumption come from? The way in which the existing method of student funding relies on a parental contribution, making students of middle-income parents automatically financially dependent, is the most common explanation given for the phenomenon of students-as-children. Under the grant system, which is soon to be abolished, a student's grant is linked to their parents' income, and on that basis they can receive a full grant or part grant or no grant at all. Parents are supposed (but not legally obliged) to pay the rest, up to the level of a full grant.
On this basis Richard Baker, deputy president of NUS Scotland, came out in support of Patrick MacDonald's action against his mother. He told the Guardian on 14 October, 'It is unfortunate that students have to rely on their parents but that is the state of the law....If parents do not pay up they can expect such cases to come their way'. Baker's view is backed by some students. Hannah Lynes, a student at St Catherine's College, Oxford, relies on a contribution from her parents and argues 'the law says parents have to pay up to grant so that's fair enough'.
Paul McQuillan, a second year ecology student at Edinburgh University and the same age as Patrick MacDonald, has no grant or loan but relies on parental support and a part-time job. As he says, 'Who else is going to pay for me? I don't like taking money off my parents, that's why I work, but it's not wrong to be doing it'. Fair enough. It would be an exceptionally proud, independent and some might say foolhardy student who would refuse an offer of money from his or her middle-income parents.
But if the structure of the grant system were the only thing that made students into dependent children, present government policy would surely put an end to that. When grants are replaced by loans - a move which formally puts the onus on students to fund themselves through a loan that they pay back when they have graduated - it could be argued that students will relate to their parents, and the world around them, as independent adults.
In fact, the introduction of loans is likely to mean more dependence not less, as students baulk at the responsibility of taking on big debts themselves. This is because the tendency for students to be viewed, and to view themselves, as children is not a product of the education funding system. It is a reflection of a broader trend in society: that kids just do not seem to want to grow up.
Any study of social trends which looks at the lifestyle activities of my generation and younger, suggests that young people today do many things later than their parents. Marriage and child-bearing is happening at a later age: even having a partner seems to happen later, as the number of single people and single households is on the up. One survey last year found that over half of 16-24 year olds now choose still to live at home with their parents. In line with this, more students now choose to study at their home-town college, and if they do study away from home they go back to mum and dad during the holiday - even when they are paying half rent on college accommodation. Instead of graduation marking passage into independent adulthood, more graduates now scuttle back to the parental home after their finals, and do not seem in too much of a hurry to move on.
If there is a caricature of what has been dubbed 'Generation Y', it is the pathetic no-hoper Mike Dixon in Brookside. Well into his mid-twenties, > Mike lives at home with his dad, Ron - or did, until Ron was forced to rent out his house and move in with a neighbour to save his daughter's business. Mike's reaction to this is not to take the opportunity to fly the nest and save his dad some worry. After about a day of whingeing and half-hearted flat-hunting, he pitches a tent in the neighbour's back garden as a protest stunt to make Ron let him share his bedroom. The only aspect of this storyline that does not accurately mirror the dominant social trend is Ron's reaction, as he tells his son to get a life and get a flat. If the statistics are anything to go by, most parents would probably be more indulgent.
The tendency for young people to stay childlike longer is, not surprisingly, strongly reflected among the growing body of students in Britain's expanding higher education system. Indeed the way in which higher education has been reformed is playing an active role in encouraging students not to grow up.
One side-effect of the expansion of higher education, set to go on in the post-Dearing era, has been to transform a large section of the young adult population into children. Dependent on their parents, spending three more years socialising, going to lessons, doing homework and finding menial jobs to top-up their pocket money, the institutionalisation of the first degree has proved to be another route to raising the real age of adulthood to at least 21.
For their part, the universities have embraced the trend to treat students more like children. The university authorities have made tutors adopt a more overtly 'pastoral' or pseudo-parental role towards their students, offering moral guidance and counselling as well as (or sometimes instead of) education. They have encouraged student unions to do more to protect the youngsters in their care (formerly known as union members) from such hazards of the adult world as drink, drugs and sex. And perhaps most significantly of all, universities have lowered their academic horizons so as to spoon-feed their wards an 'A' level style education, complete with easy assessments that make sure just about everybody gets a sweetie at the end of the course (see Claire Fox, 'The dumbing down of higher education', LM, October 1997).
Whether they are funded by their parents or not, students are in emotional terms considered as children. They may have loans and overdrafts, but they do not have to take responsibility for paying them back until well after they graduate. They may support themselves through a part-time job, but these have more in common with what a teenager does on Saturday to earn some extra pocket money than with the work of the young professional.
Students are exempt from tax, most jobs they do require little or no skill, they work in their leisure time. Apart from rent and food, their income is disposable income: the complaints of 'poor students' are by and large indistinguishable from the whinings of kids on meagre pocket money. It is quite conceivable that a student can be entirely responsible for his or her own maintenance, yet still be living like an adolescent.
No wonder students feel that they have some kind of a right to be supported by their parents, even though most draw the line at suing them. This was summed up by a second year English student at Hertford College, Oxford, who was unequivocal that it was 'ridiculous' for students to sue their parents. 'Parents should be responsible for making sure you don't starve to death and give you food and clothing. Anything beyond that you should be grateful for', she said. This sounds like a hardline approach to spoilt students, but something quite different is really being said. The bottom line of her case is that parents should be responsible for their (adult) student kids in exactly the same way as they should be responsible for their under-16 dependants.
Legally, 18 remains the age of adulthood. But once the majority of these 18 year olds are ensconced in some university somewhere, spending half the year in a college term time and the other half back at home, dependent on their parents for money and their own childhood bedroom, the legal split between adult and child becomes increasingly meaningless.
No doubt the Mike Dixons of this world, who want nothing more from life than to avoid responsibility, would think this a good thing. But for those of us who would rather 'choose life' with the independence and responsibility that involves, the extension of childhood is a real drag. Whatever our legal status, it means that those under 25 today are de facto children and are treated as such. As for our parents, who presumably went into the business of child-rearing thinking that they could move on when we reached 18, life has dealt them a raw deal. Who wants to approach retirement still wiping your son's bottom?
When students themselves are choosing nappies over the great unknown, anybody who wants a bit more from their young lives than spoon-feeding is faced with a very real problem. Maybe it is time we put away our tatty copies of Peter Pan and started demanding some grown-up books and a bit of respect, for the adults we should be rather than the children we are.
Past their bedtime
By Craig O'Malley
'Pyjamajump', the annual charity event held by Sheffield's universities in November, is a typically student kind of thing. Female students dress in thin cotton pyjamas while their male counterparts wear nighties or basques and suspenders. Promiscuous drinking and sex usually follow as the revellers take over pubs, bars and clubs throughout the city centre.
Over the years, the popularity of Pyjamajump has increased dramatically, with students travelling from all over to take part. Usually this might be seen as the hallmark of a successful charity event: here it is seen as a mega-problem. Pyjamajump has become too popular, apparently, putting some revellers' lives at risk. So in the name of safety, this year the university authorities ganged up with the local emergency services to put an end to this dangerous fun.
The student unions agree with the ban, but in the college bars many students are pissed off about being patronised. 'Students are fully aware of the hazards involved in a night out', said Dave over a pint, while Nick thinks 'it's the one night of the year when people should be able to do what they want'. For many students, the unmanageable and raucous nature of Pyjamajump is what makes it the great event that it is. Bethan is 'disgusted' with the ban. During her 'A' levels, friends had told her that Sheffield students exhausted the city's entire stock of the morning after pill, and she had been planning to bring her mates up from Stoke-on-Trent to test the claim. 'They're not going to bother now', she grumbled.
Some students, like Helen, suggest that the sacrifice is worth it: 'I'd rather have a boring night in front of the telly than have someone dying on the night.' But Gary points out that any night out can be hazardous, and that 'you can get killed walking across the street'. In any case, says Ian, 'risk is good' - who has ever heard of a 'safe' good laugh?
It seems that even the most infantile of student fun is now seen as too much for 18 year olds to handle. To most of us the idea of being caught semi-naked in a busy city centre belongs in the category of bad dreams rather than good nights out. But for those who want to enjoy their teenage years without the authorities wrapping them in cotton wool, the risky risqué Pyjamajump will be sorely missed. Lullabies will be no substitute.
Reproduced from LM issue 106, December 1997/January 1998