‘I’m just anxious all the time,’ says the student, a stick-thin, unattractive girl whose name is Violet Wells. She’s wringing her hands together as she speaks. Getting her just to come in to see Ren, her tutor this year, has been an achievement. ‘That’s why I haven’t handed any essays in or sat any exams this year.’
Violet is looking at the floor. Ren can barely hear her speak.
‘Well, as you have a doctor’s note for your anxiety, confirming that you have… anxiety… you’ve been given extensions for all the essays and exams you’ve missed this year. Even though you didn’t hand in any of your extenuating circumstances forms in by their deadlines, which is two weeks after the essay or exam deadline. Normally that means you get zero for that piece of work, but the department has decided that the fact that you failed to hand in your extenuating circumstances requests on time should be overlooked. You have, in effect, extenuating circumstances for your extenuating circumstances form failures.’
‘I’m too stressed to deal with forms,’ says Violet.
‘Well, the department has ruled that you can do your essays and exams over summer. But seeing as the prospect of you doing all of them this summer is somewhat unrealistic, it might be better if you just repeat second year. Given you have medical note I expect the department would allow you to do that.’
‘Can I repeat it again?’
‘What do you mean, again?’
‘I’m already repeating second year.’
‘Oh. I see.’
‘So would they let me try second year a third time?’
‘Uh, I don’t know about a third time. The EC committee will have to decide.’
Ren doesn’t think it’s right that she should be allowed to continue in her degree after so many chances. But there’s nothing he can do to stop it. A diagnosis of anxiety and/or depression, which is easy to get, is like a magic spell in a video game, it enables you to keep on going no matter how many times you get killed. It used to be that a University degree indicated a certain level of robustness and reliability on the part of the holder, virtues that employers want. Whatever you thought of the degree in question, at least the possessor of it had demonstrated that they could regularly submit their essays or projects, and regularly turn up for exams and tests. And degree-bearers will have had to regularly attend lectures (they could only get away with not doing that if they were very, very bright). Nowadays, however, there is no guarantee that someone with a degree has those sorts of qualities. There are graduates coming out who have never submitted a single essay in on time, and have had to re-sit most of their exams, and their potential employers are none the wiser.
Some of these students have never even managed to submit their extenuating circumstances forms in on time. But if the department fails such a student then the student magically comes to life and finds the energy to complain. (The temporary discovery of the student’s energy seems to be closely connected with the threat of them losing their grant.) The student is then, invariably, re-instated by the University, as Grayvington is the sort of place which goes out of its way to avoid trouble from students or parents who might sue them. Grayvington was sued a couple of years ago by a student who said she was too depressed to do anything other than lie on her bed all day, but who somehow found the motivation to put together a court case. The University quickly caved on that one. (The University might have won in court, but it was too scared of any possible bad publicity to let it get that far.)
‘What happened last year then?’
‘The anxiety. I just couldn’t face coming to classes. I was in a really bad way last year.’
‘Did this condition also affect you in first year?’
‘Yes, it took me three years to get through first-year.’
‘Three years?’ Christ Al-bloody-mighty.
‘Yes, I was allowed to try again twice.’
‘How many classes did you go to in first year?’
‘Uh, I didn’t go to classes because of my condition.’
‘Not in any of those three years?’
‘How did you pass then?’
‘I just got through anyway, without going to classes. Managed to get myself to read some of the literature a few days before the exams.’
Ren can believe this. It’s very difficult to be good at Philosophy if you don’t go to class, but anyone with half a brain can get through to second year without even going to class. There isn’t even a requirement that you pass everything, as long as you don’t fail too many modules, and your marks aren’t too terrible.
‘But to get through I had to do some resit exams over the summer of my third year. I found doing that very stressful. It wiped me out for last year.’
‘So if you took three years just to do first-year, how are you still getting a grant?’
‘My grant has finished. My Dad is paying for me now.’
‘That’s going to be expensive for him.’
‘Not for my Dad. He works in the City.’
‘He’s a good Dad to you, then?’
‘Not really. I never saw much of him growing up.’
‘Your parents were divorced?’
‘No, he was just busy. Like my Mum. She had a high-powered job too, so I never saw her much either.’
Ren doesn’t want to know this sort of thing, but Violet gives the impression she wants to tell him. He can feel the neediness in her infecting the room. Another modern kid screwed up by absent parents. She’s been turned into a very unlikeable young woman by her parents’ behaviour, and that’s created a further reason for them to stay away from her as she’s grown older.
But while he’s somewhat sympathetic to her, the fact is that she just shouldn’t be at University. A University is a place for intelligent, capable people to study, and do essays and exams. It isn’t a place for sad sacks to do nothing but lie on their bed looking at the ceiling all day. University resources should not be used on them year after year. Taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for students who won’t be students.
It’s clearly not good for most of them either. It makes their condition worse, increasing their stress and anxiety the longer things go on. Their failure to do any work leads them to be more depressed, which makes them even more incapable of doing work, which in turn makes them more depressed again, and so on. But the fact that most of these students are roused to action whenever their income is imperiled indicates that they’d be in a better state out in the world of work, where they aren’t allowed to get away with doing nothing for such long periods.
‘It might actually be best if you suspend your studies for a year or two. Get away from Uni and get yourself into better mental shape. Then come back when you’re up to studying.’
Violet starts to panic, and starts hyperventilating loudly. ‘Heee haah, heee haah, heee haah,’ she goes. Ren doesn’t think it’s real hyperventilating, but she’s clearly distressed.
‘What? What’s the matter?’
Finally Violet calms down. It turns out that the issue is suspending.
‘I don’t see why you’re so against suspending,’ says Ren. ‘The evidence we have before us tells us that it’s very unlikely that you will fare any better next year. It would be better for you to get away from Uni for a while, and come back only when you’re better.’
There is silence for while. Then, finally: ‘My Dad won’t give me any money if I’m not studying. He wants me to get a degree, but once I have my degree he says I’m on my own.’
Now it’s Ren’s turn to stay silent. Often with these students money is an important underlying issue, and it seems Violet is no different. As much as she hates being a student, she hates the idea of having to go out into the workforce, or the dole office, even more. She may be lying on her bed all day looking at the ceiling feeling miserable (or she may be having a good time every day; Ren has no way of knowing) but at least she’s doing it with a guaranteed income for the year, with no requirement for her to do anything at all. Not even to submit extenuating circumstances forms. Ren’s sympathy for her starts to recede a little.
In a way, the condition of these students is caused by the government, or the parents, handing out money and thus creating an incentive for some people to do things they really aren’t suited to, and are better off not doing. It’s the law of unintended consequences, thinks Ren. Just as the single mothers’ benefit results in a lot of women who don’t really want babies, and who have no interest in looking after a child properly, having babies for the sake of the money, student grants create an incentive for people who aren’t suited to University to go, and to stay there even though it’s not working. In the same way, the unemployment benefit creates an incentive for people to be unemployed. If you pay people not to work, it’s no surprise that some people will take you up on your offer.
‘But it’s just going to happen again next year, isn’t it?’ says Ren. ‘Is that what you want?’
‘I won’t have to worry about money. I won’t have to worry about getting a job. And I’ll feel worthless if I don’t eventually get a degree some day.’
‘Statistically speaking, virtually everyone in the whole history of the human race has not had a degree. It hasn’t bothered most of them. Why should it bother you so much?’
‘I don’t feel like I’m worth anything. A degree will show me that I’m worth something.’
‘What does it show you’re worth?’
‘It shows that I’m capable of doing University-level study.’
‘But in five years that’s exactly what you’ve failed to do.’
Mistake. In his growing impatience Ren has said something he shouldn’t have. Violet bursts into tears. It takes half an hour to get her to calm down and get her out of his office. That’s the other problem with these sort of students – they take up so much time. At least three-quarters of the time the staff spend on students is spent on the ‘ECs’, that is, the students with endless extenuating circumstances submissions. When a good student comes in to see Ren, they discuss the study topics, the student throws a few ideas around, Ren critiques them, there’s a bit of back and forth analysis, and then the student departs in a normal and timely fashion to make some changes to their essay. When an average student comes in the same happens, except they might do a bit of moaning about various other things as well. But generally they also have things to do, and they don’t hang around for too long. But the ECs… They’re always coming in, in a panic, in crisis-mode, in tears, in a rage, and it takes a long time to get things sorted. At least, you think things are sorted. But two days later they’ll be back again for a repeat performance.
Extreme cases like Violet who never come in might seem easier, but then you have to spend time chasing them up, trying to work out what’s going on with them, and corresponding with various people in the Byzantine University bureaucracy about them, with definitive decisions about their status always postponed. Ren thought he was going to spend his working hours doing Philosophy, but it turns out that’s a hobby for after work. His working hours are spent in a creche for middle-class flakes, holding their hand and saying ‘There, there.’
It’s worse if you’re a young, sympathetic lecturer still on probation who is anxious to make a good impression on your department, because then the flakes gravitate towards you. Ren doesn’t come across as very sympathetic so he is spared the worst, but Miles, Lily and Douglas are finding that their niceness (or apparent niceness in Miles’ case) means that there is an endless stream of panicky students at their door. Older, grumpier lecturers with established positions (especially Robot and Adelaide) get far few knocks on the door from the frangibles.