Over the past couple of weeks, course reps have been circulating a draft of the ‘Student Charter’ seeking feedback from the student body. The Charter sets out what the University expects of the academic community as a whole, as well as what staff can expect of students and vice versa. The values espoused in this document seem incredibly reasonable. Few would argue against creating a “welcoming environment for staff and students of all backgrounds” or that the University shouldn’t “provide a coherent, well designed programme of study”.
Therein, however, lies the first issue with the Charter. No one would dispute these values. The “collaboration” they describe has sought to take on so many views that all that is left are non-specific truisms. Why is this a problem? Firstly, it renders the document pointless. If these views already appeal to the vast majority of students already, why do we need a document? Many of the bullet points (a symptom of the text’s basic nature) are so generic as to be meaningless. Furthermore, even if we assume that some students opposed the values put forward, there are no specific criteria to measure this by. Phrases like “highest standards”, “excellent” and “fully commit” litter the document. While commendable, they are indemonstrable. Who is to say whether an individual has squandered their academic career or otherwise? If these demands cannot be evidenced clearly, what possible impact can they have and how can those who subscribe to it be held accountable? The only cases which it could unarguably be shown to have been flouted would have to be so flagrant that their perpetrator would unlikely be swayed by the guidelines either way.
On the other hand, these bullet points, however nebulous, do represent a set of quasi-instructions. Thus, there is an element of contradiction in the Charter. The opportunity to “develop their values, motivations and aspirations” is a right that this Charter affords to every student. The setting out of rights is the normal function of a Charter and I have no qualms with it per se. The document, however, goes further than this. Despite urging its students to “develop as an autonomous thinker”, it suggests that these very thinkers are incapable of arriving at these values themselves. Instead of allowing people to “develop their values” the University has provided a set they made earlier. The very existence of this document implies that the University thinks that people need to be told, for example, to “show respect for themselves and others.”
Loathe as I am to mention it, there’s a comparison with the Brexit-Trump phenomenon. The charter contains similarly vague values of “respect” and “opportunity” that Remain/Democrat politicians peddled throughout this year. These public figures found that telling people what was right fell flat. To be prescribed an ideology is incredibly galling, however reasonable it may be, particularly if its high-minded language fails to address your personal concerns. It could even repel people from ideas they might otherwise have been convinced of, had less patronising methods been deployed. “Values, motivations and aspirations” cannot be dished out from on high, they have to be forged by one’s own experiences.
Whilst I don’t object to the Charter’s values, the manner in which they’ve been peddled manages to be both generic and prescriptive; poorly defined and definitive. The University needs to trust its students to reach their own conclusions. These can be challenged and influenced, but not written from scratch by someone else.