Back in the mid nineties, in the heady days of Britpop, I was dropped off by my parents at the University of the West of England at 2.15pm on a Sunday afternoon.
Less than twenty hours later, I was in my first lecture, recovering from my first “Tequila Karaoke” night. Less than two weeks later, I was on my first field trip, interacting with people that were not really like me. And less than a month later, I was set my first piece of academic work, with no idea of how to navigate its baffling new demands.
Get ready for uni
In the folklore, “getting in” to university suggests a level of readiness. You have the grades – and by association the cultural and social capital – to cope with the deep end of the higher education swimming pool. Press stories written by people who got those grades and had that capital use words like “survival” to describe that first day, week, year or even entire higher education experience, with endless tips on “coping” and “getting through”. Secretly, it’s an assumed sorting process: if you can survive it all, you’ll thrive in our cut-throat, demanding real world.
But it’s not at all clear to me that this model of survive-to-thrive is wise, or works, or isn’t at the very least hugely wasteful of student talent. In the early eighties, my parents dropped me off at our local swimming pool, and I was pushed into the deep end of Walsall swimming baths. I panicked, scrambled out, developed a teenage penchant for fake verucas and stomach upsets, and I still can’t really swim.
On the competency staircase, we know that the step of “conscious incompetence” is a dangerous one. Handled badly, we’ll fall of the staircase and convince ourselves that this skill isn’t for us. Handled well, we’ll be nurtured through the discomfort and go on to be the best that we can at swimming, or driving, or being a student on a higher education course. It’s not weird to assume that institutions of education would believe in nurture rather than nature, is it?
Ready steady go
In the last decade, there’s been a slew of evidence suggesting that students really aren’t prepared and ready when they arrive. They are more socially diverse, and more varied in their educational backgrounds. They are more often now recruited on the basis of potential than achievement, suggesting that we need to help them convert that potential into our frameworks of achievement. The environments they enrol into are much more complex than before – they’re bigger, more impersonal, more expensive and more demanding. They might get a campus tour, or a timetable, or a library induction – but navigation is about confidence as much as it’s about maps.
The go-to solution for almost all of these issues has been about finding solutions that can be deployed before a course starts. International students commonly arrive earlier. Summer schools are developed for those that are first in the family to access higher education. And there’s an endless stream of online interventions – on everything from sexual consent to academic integrity – hurled at students trying to enjoy a few weeks off in August before they start shopping for a new duvet.
Some initiatives take place right at the start. On some campuses, welcome weeks are now so packed full of well-meaning induction and orientation activity that they’re even more overwhelming than singing “Footloose” on five shots of tequila. The message it sends is simple – you have a seven day mission to get some friends, learn about diversity, navigate the journals and buy the books. And then you’ll be “ready”.
Star spangled options
In 1888 Boston College in the United States offered its first Freshman Orientation course. Reed College, Oregon was the first to offer a course for credit. In 1970, the University of South Carolina created a new course designed to “bond students to the institution”. Across the United States, universities require or recommend new student modules – often a semester long and composed of everything from campus tours to group work, diversity classes and consent education. Real time and space is made for nurture – for students to find, and discover, and make connections – to learn about and navigate the complexity and build both bonding and bridging social capital that the studies say they need to survive and thrive.
There are of course plenty of attempts here at reframing the first year as formative, with all sorts of great initiatives from both UK and European on display at events like this– some of which we’ve looked at on Wonkhe before. But they’re often piecemeal, or poorly funded, or subject specific, or hobbyist in nature. They rub up against the hamster wheels of the four module, two term traditions that have all grown up in a different era – luxury extras that few of us dare make into official parts of the curriculum or academic year.
We’re now putting so much into getting students “ready” before it all starts that these initiatives, designed to stop university life being overwhelming – become overwhelming in and of themselves. We need a step change – big chunks of that first year time and budget need to go to make room for the armbands that inexperienced higher education swimmers need to realise their potential. Every issue that emerges – student conduct, essay mills, harassment, edtech, study skills, online hate crime, consent, mental health, independent study, finding work, joining in – they all point to a need to find real space and capacity to develop understanding.
And, before we start developing deficit models, initiatives need to be for all students. Because white, middle class, fifth-in-the-family campus-based “traditional” students need to learn how to work with and appreciate others, just as much as those students without the existing social capital need to learn about how to be what some of us still think of as a “model” (or even “normal”) student. The only thing worse than a student who doesn’t feel ready is one that does but really isn’t.