How universities have commodified friendship

A saleable image of friendship has been cultivated and curated by profit-seeking education institutions, to our detriment.

It can be hard to make friends at university: housing is unaffordable, casual socialising is discouraged and education is being delivered in an increasingly impersonal manner – online or in massive tutes. Instead of sympathy for, or recognition of, such structural challenges, our atomised society suggests that a failure to make friendships is a personal fault, one able to be remedied by extra effort or a unique and charming personality. Such logic is deeply damaging to students who by chance or structural forces have failed to meet their expectations of university friendship. Worse, it has been amped up by universities who have attempted to commodify friendship, reducing it to something students are expected to consume, invest in and compete over.

Universities profit from friendship, or at least the veneer of it. Prospective students, both domestically and internationally, naturally base part of their choice of university on the student life they offer. To be competitive, unis don’t just have to put out quality research and have good facilities, they have to sell friendship. This is clear on USyd’s website. There are pages for how to make friends, where to hang out on campus, and why you should join clubs and societies. Perhaps these are theoretically helpful to some students, but the advice they offer often conflicts with reality. The ‘places to hang out’ list cites Manning Bar as a great place to take a break, notwithstanding the fact that Manning has been closed for daytime trading for years. It also recommends living in accommodation near campus, despite the unaffordability of this for most students.

Student unions, clubs and societies also have a profit incentive in students making friends. For clubs, extra members mean more funding. For student unions, belief in the ease of making friends at outlets means increased patronage and thereby revenue. A search of the USU website offers 577 results for web pages including the word ‘friends’. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s great that the USU offers a variety of ways to get involved – it can result in students questioning why they struggle to participate and make friends in clubs despite so many options being available.  

Making friends isn’t just a commercial process – it’s a competitive one. The university makes increasing promises about the amount of friends students can make and the quality of those friends. Of the 577 results on the USU website, many used terms such as “lifelong”, “for life” or “long lasting” to advertise a particular club or activity. Such hyperbole devalues the actual rarity and difficulty involved in making a friend of such description – most people could count their “lifelong” friends on one hand.

The obvious counterargument to all this would be to say that the perceived ease of university friendship is cultural, not the fault of specific institutions. Yet, there are ways friendship is commodified within our broader culture too. I would say that the way we recount our social lives at university is imbued with neoliberal attitudes to friendship. When degrees are framed as investments, sometimes dubious ones, a quality social life can be used to justify to ourselves and others that higher education is worth it. These narratives are also reproduced writ large in movies and tv shows through vibrant party scenes saturated with nostalgia.

The consequence of all this is that students feel isolated and discouraged from pursuing viable avenues of connection. Students cease joining new clubs, refrain from investing in budding friendships and feel a general sense of hopelessness. This is particularly true of economically disprivileged people, people of colour, and students who attended public schools. Such a response is worsened by the fact that neoliberalism tells us that our personalities are saleable goods. When we aren’t making friends, it is because nobody is ‘buying’ us. Or, equally perniciously, difficulty making friends can be rationalised through the neoliberal logic of meritocracy. That we don’t have friends because we haven’t earned them. ‘How to make friends’ guides reinforce this. The supposed existence of a method of making friends suggests that those without lots of friends didn’t follow the rules, as they should have, and therefore failed because of a personal fault.

Even where this doesn’t happen, the relationships students make and attempt to make at university are influenced by neoliberal attitudes about how we value our relationships and our time. In the university context, time spent with friends is time that could be spent on studying or working or a litany of other ‘productive’ purposes that neoliberalism encourages. Accordingly, friendship is imbued with a transactional quality, wanting to make time spent socialising worthwhile.

The best example of this is the abundance of ‘networking’ events offered by clubs and societies. Networking obviously serves a valuable purpose in some instances. However, the sheer amount of networking events offered to students who don’t need immediate industry connections suggests that their popularity is driven by the perceived need to make our time socialising count. Networking is preferable to going to the pub because it may help us get a job. Because students only have so much time to socialise, networking comes at the cost of other social activities or society events. As a result, students attend events which purport to enable the growth of friendship but actually do the opposite. Genuine interactions are displaced by ones in which other students are not potential friends, but actual competitors who could get in the way of a good career.

I spent much of year 11 and 12 preoccupied with the idea of making good friends at university. Most students go to uni with the same intention. Instead of having our expectations of making friends managed and raised by the institutions we attend, students should be free to make friends unencumbered by the neoliberal rationalisation of friendship being thrust upon us.