Are eighteen-year olds adults?

Last month, I was invited to participate in one of the debates that the Higher Education Policy Institute was organising at the Festival of Higher Education at the University of Buckingham. The motion was: “This House believes 18-year olds are still children and not adults.”

Alongside journalist and author Jo Williams, I was opposing the motion against Nick Hillman (HEPI Director) and Chris Ramsay (Headmaster of Whitgift School). 

The context was that there is an increasing concern about the welfare of university students and the role that universities should play in ensuring their safety. This is (allowing for extemporising) what I said:


Let’s remind ourselves of the words of this motion: “This House believes 18-year olds are still children and not adults.” Not young adults. Not adolescents. But children.

I remember being 18. I expect many of you do. If someone called me a child at 18, they meant it as a deliberate insult. I was old enough to vote, to work, to pay taxes, to get married, to drink, to drive, to die for my country, which, fortunately, wasn’t necessary. But if it had been, I would have been old enough to conscientiously object and old enough to go to prison. Just about the only thing I wasn’t old enough to do was drive an articulated vehicle –something I still can’t do.

The wording of this motion asks us to insult 18-year olds.

It’s not an insult because they’re being over-sensitive ‘snowflakes’ or have ideas above their station. It’s insulting because it infantilises them. Literally, this motion is the very definition of the word ‘infantilise’.

Treating someone as a child, especially when, legally speaking, they are not, is to deprive them of the dignity of self-determination, of agency – the very thing that most students hope to get in their lives by going to university in the first place. It is to treat them as if they not only should not be allowed to make sensible decisions for themselves, but as if they can not.

And what do we achieve by treating young adults as children?

I’m a parent. So are all my colleagues on both sides of the motion. As a parent, I understand the desire to protect my children from every harm. I often want to wrap them up in cotton wool. But you can’t. And social services have told me I’m not allowed to use duct tape either.

The best way to ensure your children are safe as they grow up is to let them make mistakes in a safe environment and learn from those mistakes. Give them the support not to make mistakes when it matters and be there anyway when they do.  Allow them to develop resilience, grit, self-reliance.

Treating people like children ensures they remain children.

If parents should learn to let their children grow up, how much more does that apply to universities.  On this very platform one year ago, Sam Gyimah, the then Universities Minister suggested that universities should be in loco parentis. I disagree.

Students do not want to be ‘parented’ by their universities. And it’s not fair to ask universities to take that role either. Parenting is hard enough when you are a parent. It’s nearly impossible when you’re not, particularly when your so-called ‘child’ doesn’t want or need you to act like one. Being in loco parentis places an unreasonable and unachievable expectation on universities – and it sets them up to fail.

Does that mean you should stop caring for people or guiding them when they reach a certain age? Of course not. Becoming an adult is a gradual process and even adults want and need to be looked after sometimes.

Am I saying universities have no duty of care to their students? Of course not. I’m saying that caring shouldn’t be something that can only be done by parents or only done to children.

Universities have a duty of care to their employees too, but no one expects them to ‘parent’ them. Universities are communities and, like any caring community, it should offer help to members of the community who need it, ideally before they even feel the need to ask. The kind of support a young adult may be likely to want or need is different from the support for an ageing academic, but it doesn’t help to treat either of them like a child.

Think about an old people’s home: do you think the residents should be treated as children because they may need care and support? Personally, I think that would be an insult to their dignity and the same goes for 18-year olds.

As a society, we could learn a lot about mutual respect by building stronger communities of care. I also believe we could learn a lot by respecting our teenagers far more.

When I was invited to speak in this debate, I said I’d be honoured to do it if they got desperate – clearly they did – but I suggested they shouldn’t have old farts like us. You want someone to prove 18-year olds aren’t children? Ask an 18-year old.

You don’t have to listen for long to Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousufsai when she was younger or any of the many young people campaigning to lower the voting age to realise that we dismiss young people as ‘just children’ at our peril.

Please don’t insult them. Please vote against this motion.


During the discussion, I realised an important further point which I made in my summing up. This desire to parent people who are adults is partly to do with control and is closely entangled with money. So long as students are reliant on parents for money, there is a sense that the parent gets to tell them what to do. How often have parents told young adults, ‘Not while you under my roof’? 

Seen in this light, the commercial transaction of control puts an almost sinister spin on the motion. Why does the Government, through the HE funding system, consider people as old as 25 as still not financially independent? And why does this support entitle anyone to treat anyone else like a child?

 

I am very grateful to Nick and the HEPI team for inviting me to join the debate. It was a stimulating exploration that interrogated some important issues and Nick was very gracious in choosing to propose the motion which – being the heretical position – was always likely to struggle to gain support.

Sure enough, at the start there was probably a two-to-one majority against the motion, but more than half the audience abstained. By the end, the lead had probably increased and almost everyone voted. 

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2 Comments

  1. Well said Johnny! In the same vein as my Wonkhe post with Caroline Chipperfield on the role of parents in HE.

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