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Should universities teach behaviour?

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

What is the role of universities in education? No one would argue that they should give in depth grounding in an academic subject, developing critical analytical skills as well as imparting knowledge.

Image by Andrew Tan from Pixabay
Image by Andrew Tan from Pixabay

They also provide practical training in the subject. Most would recognise that universities should develop skills (often called soft, but better called essential) that are needed by business, thus improving the employability of students.


One of the most important essential skills is behaviour. If we are to be successful in our business, personal and social life we need to know how to behave appropriately. This can be at the simplest level, knowing what to wear for an interview, but is also about knowing how to interact in a polite, respectful and appropriate manner that gets the best out of others and has a positive impact.

The ancient universities have always done this. They expect students to dine together, to make conversation with people studying different subjects, to meet with academics (tutors, directors of study etc.) in semi-social settings that rapidly, implicitly, tells the students – whatever their background – what is expected from them and how they should behave. They have rules and rituals that help reinforce and reward these behaviours. They do a good job in educating their graduates to behave in a way that promotes success (at least for a particular section of society).

This approach does beg some questions. Some of the behaviours that are taught are not necessary in the outside world. Knowing how and when to wear a black tie is not an essential skill for most (and if it is needed can be learned!).

Behaviours can exclude

Behaviours can exclude people. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Many behaviours and rituals serve to form and define the group or society that people belong to. There is nothing wrong with that – religious groups as well as social and sports clubs often demand particular behaviours that are important for group identity but have no other function. Of course taught behaviours are often negative; they can serve to reinforce prejudice or to exclude people who are not part of the special group.

Many universities have less of a tradition in teaching behaviour, and might not think that important. However, they are doing them a disservice if they do not. Universities are preparing students to work in a society that will expect certain behaviours. If a graduate does not know how to behave at interview, or how to interact appropriately with their colleagues, then they are less likely to succeed.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

How to help students

Many universities have mentorship schemes for students with disadvantaged backgrounds in which students meet mentors regularly. Mentors are selected from the private and public sector, and can often be alumni. They help build students’ professional contacts and networks, and inform students about the realities of the sectors they work in.

One of the key elements of this scheme at one university is a formal dinner attended by all the mentors and mentees. Students have the opportunity to experience a formal setting, developing confidence in a situation that will be important in their future careers.

In today’s world of work it is important to consider on-line behaviour, and there has been research looking at how students from diverse backgrounds acquire politeness in on-line communication, knowing the appropriate way to address people in different settings. There have been calls to explicitly teach such skills in universities.

Universities should demonstrate to students the importance of behaviour. When students interact with staff in a manner that would be inappropriate in the external world of business then they need to be told. It is better that a student learns at university, rather than in the workplace, that it is not normally appropriate to address a senior person in an email as ‘Hi there’ and sign off with a string of emoticons.

Students also learn successful ways of behaving in the workplace through work placements or through modules (both as part of the curriculum or an employability programme) that give students the chance to see different ways of working.

However, this does raise some difficult questions that we need to think about. Some of the behaviours demanded by society or business are perfectly sensible and help their smooth functioning. Others should be challenged.

It is important to remember that the right behaviour depends on the context and will change with time. Simply learning to conform to a rigid set of rules is not the same as learning how to behave appropriately.

The cultural, social or family background of the students may have imparted behaviours that are seen negatively by others, and these students may need to learn how to modify how they behave in certain circumstances. This raises difficult questions about cultural identity and societal convention, and the ability of the latter to exclude people who ‘are different’.

Students need to learn to think through what they should do, and when they should go along with a prevailing norm, and when they should challenge it. They need to learn how they can express their true identities, while still conforming to societal norms.

It also means that students from privileged background need to learn to be open to different experiences and backgrounds. People should know how to conduct themselves whatever the society they find themselves in. Universities cannot and must not be in the business of forcing students to adopt one set of narrow social conventions, or to be untrue to their roots.

How can this complex skill be developed? One is through diversity. Most of our universities have a wonderful diversity with students (and staff) from all backgrounds, both from the UK and overseas. One of the big advantages of a residential education is the opportunity to live and study and socialise in such as diverse group, and learn when good behaviour is universal, and to be confident in knowing how to behave in different settings. It should also engender a feeling of curiosity and a willingness to learn from others different ways of interacting.

image by Geralt from Pixabay

Another way is to emphasise the values of the university. Understanding the fundamental importance of (inter alia) inclusivity, social justice and tolerance, and giving students the confidence to stand up for these values, should help them learn to recognise and challenge negative conventions.

We can help students think explicitly about how they behave, to give them a choice. If a student knows that they are expected to behave in a certain way in a situation then they are empowered to make a choice; to conform or not. If they are unaware of what is expected then they do not have that choice, and have less control over the impact of their actions.

Universities offer a great opportunity for students to develop their behaviour skills, learning how to interact in work and the rest of life in a way that makes them more effective and engenders positive outcomes. Universities need to think more explicitly about how they encourage students to take advantage of these opportunities.


Andrew George

An executive coach and consultant. Andrew has been held senior roles in universities. His interests include medical research and innovation, education, leadership and research ethics.

Web page:

Twitter: @ProfAGeorge

© 2019, Andrew George, all rights reserved

Date published: 22 July 2019


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