I remember when I was at school and had to decide what subjects I would be taking for O’levels (or what became GCSEs). I went to a comprehensive school and the advice was that we should choose what we are interested in and not to choose subjects to be with your friends. Had they not have said that I would never had thought of it and so chose the same subjects as my friends, except for Art as I loved it and that was the only thing I really wanted to do. There were no conversations with my parents about my choices because I was the one having to be in the lessons. I had no steer from a careers adviser and Google, (or the Internet as we know it) had not been invented. So there I was, at the mercy of my friends choices and that was how I ended up taking French. Luckily for me, they also chose Geography, History and English Literature. All subjects that sparked interest in me once I had left formal education. Having absolutely no idea what I wanted to do when I was 14, my aim was to get through school and go to college and do some A Levels. I thought the selection I had was varied enough and I was not encouraged to go any further, reasoning to myself that as I didn’t want to be a Doctor or a Lawyer, there was no need to go to university.
My choices were guided by the (probably) informed choices of my friends as well as random comments from teachers or influential others around me. It was a very different time. I definitely had choices, which became options, if my choices didn’t work out. If I didn’t get on at college I could leave and get a job. I would be able to work my way into something and failing that, I could always live on my wits and sell. I was a natural at selling and as it turned out, that was something I eventually ended up doing. I’d made the wrong choices at school, had to retake my courses at college and was so incredibly bored after one year of A’Levels I had had enough. I left it all behind and my sister got me a job as a receptionist at the local solicitors office where she worked.
When I think about the twists and turns of my life and the routes I found to ‘better’ myself through education, it didn’t matter how determined, hard-working or intelligent I was. At the end of the day, if after school and college you had made a decision to drop out, like I had, there needs to be a way back in. I was lucky that at the time I was able to get work and if I wanted to I could go back to a further education college and go to night school. It was not until I had had both my children that I went back into education through something called a ‘Women Returners scheme’ at my local FE college. After I had done that, the rest was history. I am now on my third degree (PhD) and have remained in employment and education more or less since 1998.
I think that it is important to think about the impact of circumstance and how that options are not always as straightforward as they seem. Many people are unable to go further with their education and so improve their chances of earning more, or getting into a career or changing their skill set. The options are only as much an individual decision in as much as the society that they are in have deemed to be worthy pathway or route in. If the society I had been in during the 90’s had decided that women were not worth supporting to go back to education, who knows where I would be now?
That is why I am a firm believer in inclusion and fairness. I have no idea of the circumstances of individuals who look like me, don’t look like me or are not as ‘able’ as me, but I want to know. I have read a lot of research about the group we call ‘commuter students’ who are not necessarily, as it turns out, regular students that just all happen to be travelling to and from their universities, rather than living in Halls. They are more likely to be from marginalised groups, impacted across all levels of socio-inequality. But I don’t think that that is the whole story. I think that it is more about their options and making higher education work for them.
My theory is that this diverse group will also need to be well equipped with skills, devices and access to networks to juggle their local and student lives. There is also some element of tacit knowledge, how things ‘are’, how things are done, stuff that ‘everyone’ knows happens. If you’re the first in your family to go to university then you may not have that knowledge, depending on who you are, you may not feel confident to find out. Especially if you are not always ‘in student mode’. Regular students get to commit time to being a student, some may even have to work but they are at least living in a learning environment if they have made that move to be ‘at university’. Settling into university is one thing but it is temporary if you come and go, taking on your role in your other life travelling back to your home, to be in your community as the carer, parent, employee, etc on a daily basis.
What is their digital life like? How much agency do they have to control their online and offline lives as in their ‘roles’? Why did they opt to be a campus based student rather than doing an online degree course? I have many more questions. Each student will have a different set of answers I am sure. But in order to support students who have different options and successfully attend university, I think it is important to at least take a closer look at individual experiences from their perspectives. We spend a lot of time second guessing about needs of students and I am glad to have the opportunity to take a closer look.