In 2019 there are lots of ways and opportunities for people to study in higher education. Part time, at a distance, as part of an apprenticeship, sponsored by an employer, doing a year abroad – you name it, there is a way to do it.
Yet there is still this thing called a “normal” university and a “normal” student, and even people in the sector can have a very poor understanding of anything other than an 18 year-old student going to a conventional university for 3 years, and then going to a job.
Parts of the sector have done much in recent years to recognise that the profile of students have shifted, and started understanding that you can pretty much get a student from any background studying towards any kind of degree. But the default mental position is still the “normal” student, and everything else is approached from a deficit perspective, where we adapt for “abnormalities”.
Normal for Norfolk
What is “normal” these days? I don’t think it exists anymore.
- You get 18 year-old students who have to leave university in the middle of first year because the increased responsibility on young people means, if life happens and they have to choose between supporting themselves financially or gaining that degree, something has to give.
- You get 50 year-old mothers who just left their husband they had to marry due to expectation from the family at the age of 18, just discovering new career opportunities through apprenticeships to help them continue supporting themselves.
- You get retired men starting a degree to learn more about astronomy to keep their minds busy during retirement because they didn’t have the opportunity to do a degree when they had to start supporting their family from the age of 14.
- And then you also get students, like myself straight out of college, for whom conventional university was never an option due just to not having the desire for the experience, and planning to have different experiences to suit their current lifestyle.
None of these are looked at as “normal”, yet all of these people will end up with a piece of paper just as normal as their “normal” fellow students.
Do we still think normal is a young person sometimes starting their degree due to the pressure from their peers, when they really just wanted to do gardening because it makes them happy? Is it giving up your life at 18 to go to a different part of the UK just because that university 500 miles from home offers 2 more hours work experience a month and on one metric is then viewed as better “value for money”?
Even the “normal” universities have gone through massive changes and they are nowhere near as similar in their environment and teaching as they used to be. As education technology and the variety of ways to deliver teaching have evolved, there are automated labs, skype lecturers and remote student support and communities – changing the kind of “normal” we get.
Dream on dreamer
There are of course still a huge number of students going into their dream university at 18, and leaving with the best experience of their life. But there is also an increasing number of students choosing to go down a different route to gain their degree – because unlike 20 years ago, these opportunities now exist. But large parts of the sector still fail to recognise it.
- Schools and college advisors need to start recognising that there are all these different ways of doing a degree and not put students under unnecessary pressure about their choices, making them feel like they are worth less because of their choices.
- Employers should educate themselves about modern higher education, working to know just as much about their candidates as they expect them to know about their organisation.
- Those who organise such matters in providers – timetablers, student support managers, students’ unions and those that provide the tech – should start by assuming that diversity is now the norm, instead of organising things around a full time, live close model with multiple sticking plasters for anyone that doesn’t fit the mould.
And institutions should start to watch out for each other more – more collaboration and less protecting what’s “theirs”. They need to be inviting of people trying to understand their systems and those keen to build a degree from experiences at multiple universities, rather than being tied into a long-term relationship that’s not for everyone.