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Just 17? Then forget university

Paranoia about child protection means that brainy pupils who skipped a year at school are now being kept out of the ivory towers.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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There have always been a few bright sparks who made it to university before their eighteenth birthdays. I knew some 17-year-olds when I was at college: they had been so far ahead of their class that their teachers let them skip a year. They didn’t get any special treatment at university. Though not legally adults, they were entering an adult institution and were treated pretty much the same as everybody else.

Now with all the paranoia about child protection, universities have changed their view of 17-year-olds. Seventeen-year olds are officially children, and so a whole morass of bureaucracy is developing to protect them from the potentially abusive adults on campus.

One admissions tutor at University College London (UCL) says he must now check the criminal records of any staff involved with students under the age of 18. Given that tutors are already over-burdened by bureaucracy, it’s likely that they just won’t bother: ‘The practice will be that they won’t admit 17-year-olds. They will read this advice and turn down those applicants.’ The tutor – who was 17 himself when he started university – argues that this ‘denies students the opportunity of an education when they are ready for it’.

Those under-age students who do make it through the door will find themselves subject to a distinct system of protection, with a whole special layer of restrictions and protective measures.

The University of Glamorgan sends students a letter informing them of their special status. ‘The university is also required to offer you special protection against sexual harassment, and this responsibility we take very seriously’, it says. Even though over-16s can give consent for medical treatment, the university ‘follows good practice and seeks to involve those people with parental responsibility’, asking students to get their parents to fill out a form about medical treatment.

The University of Kent reads both 17-year-olds and their tutors their rights and responsibilities on matriculation day. University advice states: ‘The Head of Student Guidance and Welfare will contact all U18 students at the start of term to ensure that they are aware of the university regulations and any restrictions placed upon them as a result of their age.

‘One member of academic staff should be put forward to act as personal tutor for all students who are under 18 and this information provided to the Director of Student Guidance and Welfare Services. That person must undertake a Criminal Records Bureau [CRB] check…. That person should be reminded of the special duty of care owed to underage students and in particular of the offence of abuse of trust under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000.’

As for accepting students younger than 17, Oxford is turning around its traditional habit of accepting child prodigies. At the start of term last year, university authorities said they just couldn’t cope with the need to monitor and vet everybody with whom the child came into contact. Ruth Collier, a spokesperson for admissions, said: ‘Suddenly we can’t offer one-to-one tutorials, while the people who do administration in our colleges have to spend a great deal of time making absolutely sure they are not inadvertently placing a child in a potentially dangerous situation with anyone who hasn’t had a criminal records check.’ (1)

Interviews and university open days have become a minefield. The University of Essex requires that student mentors and helpers undergo a CRB check. It also insists on the presence of two ‘designated child protection officers’ for school visits where students are not accompanied by a teacher or parent, and these officers’ ‘names and contact details must be communicated to the young people involved in the activity, their parents, and staff members’.

Behind all of this lies a changing definition of adulthood and childhood. When adult meant ‘mature’, the existence of 17-year-olds on campus wasn’t such a big deal. They couldn’t vote or drink legally, but it was only a question of a few months. Since becoming adult was a about becoming gradually more mature, the grey area of 16 to 18 could be fudged.

Now, ‘adult’ and ‘child’ have come to mean potential abuser and potential abuse victim. This sets them apart as two completely separate groups, with completely different interests. Children are not in the process of being assimilated into the adult world, but instead need to be protected and defended from it.

When this is the view, there is a legalistic obsession with age. A person flips, on their eighteenth birthday, from being abused to abuser, from being protected to regulated. So a person aged 17 years and 11 months would need their tutor to be CRB-checked; if the following month they were to help out at a university open day, they themselves would need to be CRB-checked.

UCL recently changed its regulations from covering students under 17, to covering students ‘under 17 years and 3 months’ – presumably those who would not turn 18 in the course of the year. Somebody’s months and years are counted precisely, to decide which side of the abuser-abused line they fall down on.

Challenging this ridiculous treatment of 17-year-old university students would be one way to take on this poisonous view of adult-child relationships that is widespread today.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club.

(1) Oxford to turn away child prodigies, Guardian, 21 August 2005

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Topics Politics

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