Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Beware colleges bearing gifts of welfare provision

Agatha Christie called herself a “perfect sausage machine”, but her approach to murder was positively schizophrenic compared to the tabloids’ formulaic techniques.

The perfect tabloid story drips in pathos and outrage. In the case of Lucy Braham’s murder, pathos was easily achieved by juxtaposing the contorted image of William Jaggs with the beaming smile of his innocent victim. Outrage, meanwhile, relies on the sound bites of relatives, particularly those comments that apportion blame.

So Harrow School came in for the greatest criticism when Braham’s father noted that “despite visible, spoken and written warnings about Jaggs’ behaviour…no action was ever taken”.

But Jason Braham also pointed the finger at the “despicable drugs fraternity at Oxford University”. The red tops ignored this, though, since drugs at university is as mundane a topic as pills in a pharmacy (until you reach the Cabinet, at least, and Jacqui Smith’s experiences with cannabis in Oxford were only really of public interest because her surname rhymes with “spliff”).

Those few columnists that didn’t ignore the “drugs fraternity” remark merely noted in passing that Oxford might somehow have failed Jaggs.

Uncharacteristically, they didn’t dig their teeth in because the lines are too blurred: a university is clearly more than a glorified boarding school, and yet for undergraduates it is far from a nine-to-five workplace. Nor is it a halfway house between school and work.

All but a handful of Oxford undergraduates have reached the age of majority and are legally responsible for their actions. But the moral responsibility of parents towards children does not end at the stroke of midnight on their eighteenth birthday. Which is lucky, because most workplaces do not feel the need to provide for the personal welfare needs of workers under the age of 22.

Why should the University or its colleges act any differently? Why should they worry about anything other than our academic welfare? It’s easy to argue that the intensity of an Oxford course (living and working in the same place) warrants greater provision of personal care.

But far from being helpful, the immaturity of this argument does none of us any favours. It ignores the unspeakable truth: that in many cases, students bring their academic difficulties upon themselves with excessive partying, drinking and drug use. And no college is going to make provision for these personal problems without wanting to tackle their origins. After all, prevention is better than cure… and more cost-effective.

Unfortunately, prevention means protective parenting as well as Orwellian measures unworthy of a fifteen-year-old. “Your essay this week was weak… and I notice that on Monday you returned to College thirteen minutes after the 9pm curfew.”

The consequences of a parental college run deeper: could we honestly expect the powers-that-be to take the views of a JCR seriously with such an asymmetric relationship in place? Scouts and gardeners would be more influential than undergraduates. They would have the power of employment law behind them; we would be subject to that curious law that makes parents always right.

Of course it is commendable that the door is left open for students who have genuine difficulty with their work; indeed, that even students such as Jaggs have a place held for them is reassuring. We are all human and the luxury of a second chance is very welcome.

However, we should resist colleges ever supervising the rehabilitation of those who have gone wrong for personal reasons; even acting in an advisory capacity, colleges must be kept in check. In crude terms, a college is generous to say “come back when you’ve sorted yourself out”, but it is taking liberties (quite literally) when it tries to do the “sorting” itself.

In this respect, Oriel’s tutors acted perfectly with Jaggs. But it is still possible to provide a reasonable level of care to students without compromising the relationship between college and student. This is where the role of the student union lies. Colleges and JCR welfare teams should be able to confidently refer beleaguered students to OUSU, whether for lack of publicity or effectiveness, this has not been the case.Effective student union welfare provision wouldn’t stop another Jaggs, but it would keep overzealous colleges at bay.

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles