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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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How do we enable transformative university transitions?

by Rita Hordósy

The Covid-19 pandemic meant a ‘swift and acute’ disruption to student experiences through the ‘dissolution of the physical and social environment’, and immediate financial hardship experienced by many. The issues of student retention, success, connectedness, and feeling included remain pressing issues for current entrants. To look at what it means to become a university student and a graduate, and to understand these issues in the whole student lifecycle, it is useful to draw on experiences from before the pandemic. Using yearly interviews with 40 home, undergraduate full-time students who started their studies in 2013/2014, my research at an English northern red brick university (NRBU) focused on how students understood, and made sense of, their experiences of student life as they moved into, through, and beyond university. All outcomes (research reports and papers) of this project are available via this link.  

Through the market system, a homogenised university experience became something packaged and sold, with the social elements all being included in the price tag to market one particular version of being at university. However, university choice and participation is experienced differently in a system that remains stratified and socially segregated, with large variety in student budgets creating differential contexts for learning.  

University space and time 

To make sense of how the university space and time are felt by students, I conceptualised transformative university transitions as a dynamic, perpetual and uncertain series of changes and movements through time and space to become a university student, and subsequently a graduate. For James, NRBU and its city as the spaces for reflection are intricately linked to who he became throughout the four years of his BA and MA: 

You, kind of, realised the limits of yourself and you realised the potentials of yourself, and that means that it harbours a weird significance, (…) that, kind of, roots you here. Not as intimate as it is your home, but as a second home of a place where you can feel like you belong, and that it is your city. James, fourth interview 

The overall university time is often understood based on the cycles of the academic year, chronicling how their approach changed to the wider community, their own learning and their future. Assessing her university time, Mary discusses the complex interlinks of exploring questions of identity, her relationships to others, and shifting focus on her university studies:   

I think I can’t imagine my life if I hadn’t gone [to university]. (…) It’s made me the way I am, I think. I absolutely loved Uni. Each year was so different as well, for me it was quite distinct. The first year was sort of a bit mental and kind of discovering who I was and all that… Second year was probably the worst. (…) I got a First but I don’t know, I think the change from the first year felt difficult. (…) I tried to calm down a bit in the second year but I went too far and I just had a boring time. And then third year I kind of had a bit of a balance between the two. (…) my life here was set up and I liked the house, and I was in a good relationship, do you know what I mean? And the course was getting really good and the dissertation…

[Mary, fourth interview]

The changing foci – as discussed below – of becoming social, academic, and a university graduate can be understood as stressors, where budgeting constraints and financial futures cut across all else, and can cause constant friction for the poorest students. Similarly, physical and mental ill-health of students, their families and friends, sometimes with tragic outcomes, can have a profound impact on their experience and outcomes.   

Social aspects of acclimatisation 

Although the first academic year is characterised by a sense of arrival, the new environment, timeframe, concepts, rules and especially new peers make university transitions emotionally overwhelming. The predominant stress factor throughout this period relates to the social requirements of university life, with the first few weeks even more tumultuous. However, centring living in university halls, joining sport clubs and other extracurricular participation can be exclusionary through high costs or basing it on excessive alcohol consumption. 

Finding a university community is key: the experience of being a student is constructed in social spaces, to be retained through the friendships made, ‘who I’ll keep in touch with forever’ [Chris, fourth interview]. The importance of peer groups relates to solving everyday issues and information gaps, support in their studies, and learning from and about each other in a broad sense, as Olivia points out: 

I think just learning off people has been, like, probably the most important thing actually, and not even from studies. (…) the people that you meet and the groups that you go to, through university, things you feel that become really important to you.

[Olivia, fourth interview] 

Upon finding a social fit within the university community, students talk about seeing beyond the initially perceived homogeneity and coming to appreciate the diversity across the institution. This then allows them to ‘stick out’, but also orientate themselves towards their academic duties.  

Learning to be academic 

Given learning experiences exist on a continuum within the life course, students will initially attempt to adapt their (often unsuitable) learning and revision techniques, whilst also grappling with a new learner identity. Upon gaining some level of familiarity and comfort with how the university operates, the academic aspects start falling into place. This tends to coincide with the second year, where the narrower and deeper focus on the subject area is compared to the broad and disjointed nature of the first academic year. 

To conquer the complex and unbounded nature of university knowledge, most students start actively prioritising and being selective on the basis of perceived importance within and between modules, tailoring the academic experiences to their needs. Students actively seek out more personalised relations with university staff and start go recognise the wide range of attitudes and interests of their tutors and lecturers. For instance, Kim discusses how her relationship with one of her lecturers changed over time: 

I think it definitely gets more friendly towards third year, there was one lecturer that we had in first year who was terrifying. (…) But then we’ve had her for a module this term and she just chats to people, she makes jokes in the lectures, she’ll show you pictures of her dog and stuff. I feel like they become a bit more friendly with you, as if you’re on the way to being on their kind of level intellectually maybe, as well as more mature.

[Kim, third interview]

Countering the alienation of the first academic year, second and especially third year students start to feel that they are known, and seen as individuals. The personalisation of learning along the clearly defined interests and the growing independence allow for creation of knowledge. Dissertations as capstones mean students become experts in an area they are passionate about: Aina, in her Masters year expressed her goal of ‘contributing to the actual field [of research] and just developing my career’ through a PhD. It is indeed through becoming passionate via the university studies, extracurricular activities, internships and part-time jobs that helps formulating career plans.

Towards becoming a graduate 

Throughout the final year, time once more becomes tumultuous, given the concerns around finishing university and figuring out what is next. As opposed to initial career ideas that looked at the ‘rest’ of the students’ lives, the later interviews saw their thinking focus on a shorter time-horizon. Robert tentatively embraces the uncertainty, keeping his options open: 

It’s not like I’m stuck down one route now. I’ve still got a whole load of different things to choose from, which is bad in a way, because it means I’ve got to make a decision at some point about what I’m going to do and it might be easier if someone just went “there, do that”.

[Robert, fourth interview]

This element of making important decisions prompts a distinction of ‘proper jobs’ versus ‘bog standard jobs’, with some graduates opting for ‘graduate gap years’. What some participants describe as a ‘random’, ‘bog standard’, ‘shitty’, or ‘normal’ job, tends to be in an industry not related to their degree: in catering, retail, service industry or the care sector. Such roles are considered short term, offer substantive flexibility for the graduate, do not require specific qualifications, and are not competitive – simply put, students are not invested in them. Conversely, graduate jobs are described as ‘real’, ‘adult’, ‘proper’, ‘a more academic’, a ‘career kind of’ job that they ‘would enjoy’. These are in sectors and industries they are striving to work in, and necessitate a degree and some specific skills. These competitive roles require flexibility from the graduate, but remunerate better, whilst also promising career progression. The ‘real’ jobs necessitate emotional investment and dedication, with constraints on leaving these roles. 

There are three key features of how graduates are thinking about their futures. First, they see themselves as graduates of their course at NRBU, hoping to work in a related sector, using their disciplinary knowledge or employing some specific skills they developed. Second, graduates aim to find an employer or role they can believe in, wanting to see the value of their work on a smaller scale and generally do good in the world – this is sometimes juxtaposed with prioritising earnings. For instance, Khaled in the third interview talks about a ‘materialistic view’ of ‘just doing [a job] because I’m getting money’ not fitting with how he ‘was brought up to think’, connecting this to his working-class background. Finally, they also reflect on their newfound confidence: in their abilities, them as people in social contexts, knowing their own strengths and weaknesses. It is this confidence that allows graduates to embrace the complexity of potential options and the trade-offs, as well as non-linear and serendipitous futures. As Amina suggested:   

I have changed, it’s been, I don’t know how to describe it, (…) I’m not the same person I was when I first initially started personality-wise. I’ve got so much more self-confidence in me as well, which I’ve never had and I’ve learned so much over the past three years (…) I’ve changed in every possible way someone could change.

[Amina, third interview] 

Recognising the multitude of dimensions at play, a diverse and interlinked set of future plans emerge, entangled in a commitment to personal concerns, values and identity, social relationships, belonging to a community and a place, as well as the wider structural constraints. Such limits are linked to financial insecurity and a sense of urgency to find a job, any job. Further, with fewer family connections future graduates are less likely to gain suitable work experience or help with job applications. 

How to enable transformative university transitions?  

Through their non-linear, multidimensional, and diverse transitions, this generation of students became (mostly) independent and (certainly) reflexive adults. University as a transformative space and time is much more than an investment into one’s human capital that should pay off as employment opportunities and earnings, or the way to fulfil short-term labour market needs. Graduates become engaged members of a broader community, gain substantive expertise in their chosen area of interest, and develop a broad plan for their futures.   

To foster transformative transitions for all, embracing the diversity in student and graduate experiences that also change over time is key. This means, first, knowing who students are, using sufficient scaffolding to make knowledge accessible, and fostering an inclusive university community. Second, a whole-institutional support provision throughout the student lifecycle that understands transitions as changeable and diverse could ensure more equitable access. Finally, stable and substantive non-repayable financial support is fundamental to level student experiences for those from poor backgrounds, especially in the context of the current cost of living crisis.     

SRHE member Rita Hordósy is a Nottingham Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, and a co-convener of the SRHE Student Access and Experience Network. Her current research compares and contrasts the research / teaching nexus across European universities in Hungary, England and Norway. This blog is based on her recent paper ‘I’ve changed in every possible way someone could change’ – transformative university transitions’, in Research Papers in Education.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/rhordosy


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Understanding the student experience better

by Phil Pilkington

The benefit of the SRHE and its Blog has been in providing a sense of community for those who have to and do think about the purpose, the benefits and the travails of higher education. There have been insights shared and arguments made. It is the stuff of academia.

My interest in the student experience has been accompanied by an enormous increase in research in this area. This increase can be quantified, should you wish, by the number of papers cited under the rubric ‘Students’ in the SRHE Research Abstracts. Thirty years ago, students were a marginal, barely visible interest relative to the concerns of ‘management’ and ‘governance’ which were brought about by the changes by Jarrett, Sir Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker and onwards. It has been suggested that with the ‘customer is king’ since 2010 there is a need to know about your customers, the students allegedly at the heart of things. Hence the growth in the research into the student experience. This narrative is, however, a misapprehension of the beginnings of the interest in the student experience and does SRHE a serious disservice. There are a number of prior claims for this growing interest.

Firstly, the growth in student numbers, especially in what was once the ‘public sector’ of polytechnics and FE colleges, with an actual reduction in university places in the short term (in the early 1980s) created a more diverse student population in terms of ethnicity and social classes, and challenged institutional practices, often by direct challenges from the students and their representatives. There are many examples of such challenges at a micro level: enrolling Sikhs without clan names and other antiracism practices; multi-religious communities and pastoral care; pedagogy for commuter students; childcare et al. Each subset of these practices brought with them, or borrowed from external practices, the knowledge of the changing sector. The growth from elite to mass and to a universal HE system meant the universities were no longer monocultural. (Some HEIs have taken longer than others to catch up with this; some have yet to do so and this in itself is a fresh research area. Stories of ‘class hatred’ at Durham and Bristol come to mind and prompt the question: do greater economic disparities bring about greater cultural changes and animosities? They do, but how and why?)

Secondly, there were a number of academic staff who were not only exercised by the lack of research on the increasing diversity and the increases tout court, of the student body, but were also finding alliances and partnerships with non-academic staff, support staff or professional services staff. Some of these relationships were at a local level, some encouraged by management and much of the research was influenced by practical local needs rather than publication. Much of the collaborative work on the student experience had an action-learning or ’activist’ character to it in challenging and proposing change to practices. Research into the student experience had often been for the purposes of campaigning for change (eg changing teaching and assessment practices for the disabled) and SRHE’s ‘community’ welcomed that too. Conversely, the conventional SRHE research was applied by the campaigners for changes to both practice and outlook, eg Mantz Yorke’s research on reasons for dropping out, dispelling myths of alcohol abuse as a cause and highlighting choice of course (and lack of clarity about the curriculum) as the primary cause of dropping out.

Thirdly, the growth in institutions’ student numbers also meant an increase in specialist staff whose focus was on supporting students. These staff often belonged to professional bodies and postgraduates in their disciplines (counselling, dyslexia testing). Their insights into student behaviours and experiences as generalised or generic were above the departmental and faculty limits of many academics which also challenged the traditional and now often dangerous practices and roles of personal tutors. An added factor in collaboration was the growth in specialist staff within students’ unions and NUS. The latter had a strong and broad-based research team, especially strong in areas of national interest such as housing and financial support and student debt. At the local level, students’ unions had the everyday experience of welfare cases and the shortcomings of teaching and learning practices; articulating the ‘student voice’ to the management. It was the interrelationship between local support services that would provide a holistic approach to the student experience: welfare and education were being understood as intimately connected at the individual cognitive and the structural levels.

These factors were all either in place or forming into working relationships for shared practice and research before the final step to the neoliberal misnomer of ‘customer is king’ by 2012/13. SRHE played an important part in this growth of interest and initiated much with the creation of the Student Experience Network and the related student experience conferences. The former is still thriving having merged with the Access Network.

It is a mark of considerable progress that students are no longer ‘the other’ as they were thirty years ago, although there are occasional manufactured ‘moral panics’ about plagiarism, grade inflation, cancel culture (wars) and the threats to the sector’s autonomy as a consequence of these alarums (fines, new powers of the OfS, et al). And may the progress continue. Attainment gaps, the socio-economic inequalities of access, the toxicity of league tables, the intellectual fragility of satisfaction surveys and more, all call for more work. But if there is a need to open up a new field of research, and there is, then may I make a modest proposal that the governance of the sector needs greater examination. The sector has over the last decade been confronted with challenges unique to the UK as an outlier, or as a pastiche of the US sector, which has forgotten its history: student debt (or write-off), the growth of the academic precariat, the subsidiarisation or outsourcing of all but the core of HEIs, the delusions of autonomy challenged by practice, and a simple view of causality of study to financial rewards belying the conditions of the hierarchy of the sector. It would be of some purpose for an added focus on not the new management models, which are of limited variety given the external challenges, but the infiltration of the governance of HEIs with the values of those agents who have brought about the challenges of the last ten years. SRHE would then be reaching out to the field of the political economy of higher education and there is perhaps a dearth of such research. And from the bottom up: some reflections on the actual experiences of those engaged in the practicalities of marshalling ‘free speech’, engaging with the everyday problems of plagiarism, etc.

SRHE’s contribution to the understanding of the student experience and its application to changing practices has been and continues to be valuable – of public good. It was much needed by all parties working in and experiencing the sector. There is a need for a historical narrative and new conceptual tools to describe where and what the sector is now in facing (and facing off?) the xenophobic populism that has put the sector in its current parlous position. As someone once said: we make our own history but not as we wish; or, it is that we don’t make history, we are made by history. Was that Marx or Martin Luther King Jr? Actually, it was both; King seems more Hegelian than Marx. Research on the student experience helped HEIs to understand the new landscape of a universal system. Help is needed to understand the forces and values which are changing the nature of academia and what counts as knowledge.

Phil Pilkington’s former roles include Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, and CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union. He is an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE. He chaired the SRHE Student Experience Network for several years and helped to organise events including the hugely successful 1995 SRHE annual conference on The Student Experience; its associated book of ‘Precedings’ was edited by Suzanne Hazelgrove for SRHE/Open University Press.