Last month, news emerged that the University of Buckingham was to introduce a new system to assess the mental health of their students, in an effort to become the world’s first ‘positive university’. This, claimed Buckingham’s vice-chancellor, Sir Anthony Seldon, was a response to the ‘mental health crisis’ currently engulfing British campuses, and would be conducted through an ‘opt-in’ monitoring process, that would trawl through students’ social media accounts, analysing tweets and Facebook statuses for signs of mental illness.
By a complete coincidence, this announcement was made in the same week that a little known novel by a former imperial policeman, about a dystopian society set in the mid 1980s, re-entered global bestseller lists, peaking at number four.
You might think, of course, that there is nothing inherently wrong with the proposal. Who could possibly want to dispute or question this benign, opt-in function, if it sought to improve the mental health of so many over-worked, perma-stressed young people? Of course, no one could argue that leaving anyone with deteriorating mental health to their own devices is a good thing. Yet monitoring their online communication, for whatever purpose – even if under a voluntary basis – is a deeply concerning idea with fairly insidious implications for the future.
So much of the irksome debate around the role of university authorities and union busybodies in the lives of their students revolves around the extent to which some students wish to be coddled, or rather, to what extent said authorities believe they need to be coddled. By opting in to a system of online monitoring, students will essentially be surrendering some of the responsibility for their own mental health. Offering support is all well and good, but university is not a place for infantilising adults.
It speaks volumes for the attitudes of universities, and perhaps society at large, that so much emphasis is placed on social media. The simple fact is, social media platforms are at best a cheap, vain highlight reel – a film promo with us as narrator – and cannot be considered an accurate barometer of the average person’s mental state. It isn’t real life, and we would do well to remember that.
There are, however, wider-reaching issues. Though the Buckingham students’ information will be anonymised, we all know that the computer trails cannot be eliminated. Civil rights may or may not protect these young people from snooping by the police or insurance providers for eternity, but hackers aren’t interested in the law, and the opportunities for criminal extortion are obvious.
Then there’s the Vice-Chancellor’s point that students will be ‘invited’ to opt in – and no doubt he would never make such a programme compulsory. Buckingham, we’re sure, is not like those American universities that now enforce sexual behaviour lessons. But who can say that, given an example to follow, another British institute of learning might not try to push the wedge a little further in?
Frankly, the idea that a university could even contemplate monitoring students’ online activity – anonymised or not – should worry all who value their privacy and freedom of expression. Because one can see how such an initiative could be used by establishments to intrude far more into their students’ behaviour: trying to engineer campus society under the guise of improving its mental health.
This may sound like mere speculation, but the clue is in the statement given by Sir Anthony, where he suggests the system will be used to tackle ‘lad culture’.
If this is a move to improve mental health, what business has it monitoring the prevalence of ‘lad culture’ over any sub-group? If all Buckingham’s ‘lads’ sign up to the programme and say that they find the LGBTQ campus culture oppressive, will the authorities discourage the latter?
You can’t help wondering if the ‘positive university experience’ desired by the University of Buckingham – and to be achieved by monitoring its students’ social media – involves only thinking the thoughts the management deems unacceptable.