Have you heard anyone in your circle lamenting that “Students just don’t seem to cope as well these days.” They may have even thrown the word ‘snowflake’ into their nostalgic musing.

Every generation is shaped by their particular brand of education and cultural upbringing. This blog explores some of the factors which may be having negative impacts on our students and how creating a positive counter culture of vulnerability may be the solution.


There’s a very long list of challenges for students in the higher education sector right now. Some of those factors have always been there – transitioning into adulthood and working out your identity, shifting from school to a more independent form of learning, making new friends and preparing for the impending world of work.

But on top of those expected challenges, recent years have seen many more issues thrown into the mix:

With this cocktail of challenges to contend with, it makes sense that we see an increase in the symptoms of struggle in our students; more demand for mental health support, greater pastoral needs, more course drop outs, greater levels of anxiety and stress, and ultimately, less mental bandwidth to be able to make the most out of the academic and developmental experience that university Is designed for.

Tackling the problem is no easy feat. It will require a mixture of political policy change, institutional change, cultural shifts and for students to develop their coping skills. Whilst we are working on tackling these long-term issues, a timelier goal can be for us to look at how we develop healthy levels of vulnerability in students.


Not everyone likes the idea of vulnerability – and certainly wouldn’t see it as an essential part of the educational experience. Vulnerability sounds like being sensitive, weak or fragile. But this is far from the truth.

Brené Brown is a leading voice on the importance of vulnerability and she reassures people that vulnerability is not weakness – it’s actually the opposite. And, it is not an emotion itself. Rather, it is at the core of all emotions – to feel is to be vulnerable. She defines vulnerability as:

Uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

What makes vulnerability so important to a healthy happy life (and a good student) is that vulnerability is the secret precursor to courage. Brené asks:

“Can anyone give me an example of courage that did not require vulnerability?”

If you knew you were guaranteed to succeed in something then it would not be courageous – it would just be getting stuff done. Many of our important life transitions, achievements and learning experiences are dependent on us taking some form of risk and hoping that it pays off – or learning from the setback when it doesn’t.

Students who are able to be vulnerable (take risks, step into uncertainty and express their emotions) will be more able to:

All of these factors make for a more well-rounded, resilient and academically successful student. Being vulnerable doesn’t make the structural, political or financial challenges of HE disappear, but it may help our students to better navigate them whilst we are working on systems change.

However, if our education system is stifling those vulnerability muscles in students then they won’t meet as much of their potential and will find it harder to cope with the cocktail of challenges life is throwing at them.


The late Ken Robinson did an excellent TED talk where he asks the question ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ You can watch it here. His key point is that children are born with creativity but it is gradually knocked out of them. Our educational system was designed in the 19th century to prepare young people for industrial work and so there is a hierarchy of subjects with English and maths at the top and creative subjects like art and dance at the bottom.

In addition to stifling creativity, it seems that 18 years of exposure to our current education system also suppresses students’ willingness to be vulnerable – an essential component of creativity but also of emotional wellbeing and resilience.

An important disclaimer here is that these are observations about the general culture of the education system – obviously there are excellent teachers and schools who challenge that system and develop wonderfully well-rounded students by not falling into the following traps:

Focus on grades

There are understandable reasons for grading students. When we measure something, we put more effort into it, it provides national data and helps us check progress over time. But there are also huge drawbacks on a heavily grade focused system.

Scarcity mindsetLots of students listening to a lecture style lesson

Our system tells students that there isn’t enough to go around. There aren’t enough jobs, university places, resources etc. When faced with scarcity messages, its human nature to be more competitive. This can reduce students’ willingness to collaborate with others and be emotionally vulnerable in education as they adopt the ‘dog eat dog’ mentality.

Knowing the right answer

In some subjects there is focus on getting the ‘right’ answer. We perhaps expect this in STEM where there are provable concepts. Occasionally, and more nefariously, we may see it in creative subjects where students are taught the ‘right way’ to paint, introduce a character description or layout a web page. Praising correctness and scolding / scoffing / laughing at wrongness sends strong messages to students that failure is not an option. This discourages the vulnerability of trying – punting on an answer, asking a question or experimenting with a way of working.

Averages, one size fits all and fitting in

These concepts are slightly different but related.

This combination of factors sends students messages not to take the risk of being different – academically, socially or emotionally. This leads to young people learning coping mechanisms which allow them to hide who they are, blend in or play up to expectations of coolness – all of which create barriers to vulnerability.

Careers hierarchies

Did you ever hear something like; “You need to study hard to get a good job – you don’t want to end up being [a refuse worker / cleaner / shelf stacker]”. This may give students a quick stick-like motivation to study but at a highly problematic expense. Messages like these encourage students to be judgemental and see some jobs – and therefore the people doing them – as more ‘worthy’ than others. When students believe they are only ‘good enough’ if they get a ‘good’ job it can affect their self-esteem, stress, perfectionism and tendency to play it safe in order to achieve. Furthermore, it adds to the scarcity message – we can’t all be doctors so you better be the best.

Lack of rigorous social and emotional education

Rigour is the issue here. Many students will have experienced some form of PSHE (Physical, social, health education) which always covers the basics of anti-smoking, drugs, bullying, sex education and personal hygiene. If lucky, this may have also extended to healthy relationships, emotional processing, setting boundaries, identity, dialogue and stress management. But those latter topics are a real lottery. Working within a culture where STEM subjects are more valued means that social and emotional education is given a significantly small slice of time in the curriculum. And, even if those lessons do take place, the fast-paced nature of education means it can be hard to do a complex and sensitive topic justice in an hour.

We may hope that there are other emotional learning moments in the school day – tutor times, conversations with teachers as part of lessons, spaces for students to use over breaks. But in reality, the fast-paced culture, under resourced sector and over worked teachers can make it difficult to prioritise the conversations where emotional growth and support happens.

We may hope that students are learning these skills at home – but with an increase in the number of families where both parents work and variations in parent confidence talking about vulnerability, that’s no guarantee either.


All of the above patterns in our system lead to a problematic set of unspoken rules that students can take into their university life:

We know coming to university is demanding anyway – any learning experience and life transition can be. Society and politics have added in economic and social challenges.

AND students may be carrying any combination of these damaging ‘life rules’ which have encouraged them to hide away their vulnerability – avoid risks, only take the certain path and suppress or mask their emotions.

It’s a recipe for disaster.


Eww – that still sounds weird, doesn’t it? You probably got into education to teach a subject you love or help students reach their potential… maybe not to do touchy feely stuff.

But it matters.

There are whole host of skills students need to be successful at university which they may not have picked up along the way and so they are offered somewhere on campus – making an argument in an essay, planning their own study timetable, looking after their work / study balance.

Vulnerability hasn’t yet made the list yet, but what if it did?

Imagine if students could un-learn those negative messages and replace them with more positive ones:

When our students are more able to take (beneficial) risks, navigate uncertainty and communicate their emotions it will help them to be a more active learner, form closer social relationships and even be more innovative in their work.

Vulnerability won’t take away the heaps of challenges our students face, but it will certainly better equip them to cope, ask for help and build good support networks whilst they are navigating it. And for that reason, it’s worth us really asking ourselves as a HE sector where and when we can actively develop our students vulnerability as a foundational skill.

As for the how… that might be another blog.

The Self Leadership Initiative is all about developing the whole student to be confident, emotionally intelligent and a well rounded leader. Get in touch for bespoke training to develop your students leadership and interpersonal skills.