22 SES 08 B, Paper Session
Transition to higher education is increasingly regarded as a crucial part of entering adulthood for many young people across societies. With the OECD’s move from the massification, to the universalisation of tertiary education and widening participation programmes across European countries, the literature on student transitions – focusing particularly on youth – into higher education has grown substantially over the past few years. This paper contributes to this ongoing discussion, by exploring students’ perspectives on the specific changes that they go through and ways in which they navigate these changes arising from and during their participation in tertiary education across six European countries: Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain. We also offer perspectives from other social actors – staff, media and policy-influencers. Our analysis contributes cross-country comparisons in the construction of students’ transition into higher education and examines this from the viewpoints of multiple stakeholders.
The literature shows that transition into higher education is a multifaceted phenomenon. It involves making decisions about career and life paths, including deciding the track of tertiary education one should pursue, whether or not to pursue higher education, choosing a university and selecting the degree programme (Bristow, J., Cant, S., & Chatterjee, A., 2020). Student transition into higher education also entails emotional and instrumental (Christie, 2009), and personal and developmental (Patiniotis and Holdsworth, 2005; Blichfeldt and Gram, 2013) change, as well as more profound transformations in students’ constructions of themselves. This includes their personal and professional identity and the ways in which they understand their role and purpose in society (Ecclestone, Biesta, and Hughes, 2010). This exploration of student transition in the literature also indicates various ways in which this change itself is understood, explained, and conceptualised. For example, Gale and Parker (2014) suggest three specific ways in which studies on student transition in higher education have been conceptualised: transition as induction, transition as development, and transition as becoming. The first category represents research that understands transition as a period of students’ adjustments in higher education settings. The second category shows transition as a trajectory or a life stage, a stage at which students mature and form their career identity. The third group of studies show transition as a lifelong process, encompassing movements and experiences of lived reality. We explore these concepts in our data and provide theoretical insights into how student transition is understood in our sample countries within Europe.
*Structure of the paper and themes*
This paper starts with outlining the contemporary discussions about specific ways in which student transition into higher education is understood in the literature. We then discuss the following three themes that emerged from our data.
- University as preparation for the future: this section weaves together multiple facets—social, emotional, practical, and intellectual—to understand student transitions into, and within, universities.
- Higher education as a distinct life-phase: the second section explores how higher education is often understood as a ‘normal transition’ and a distinct phase in the life-course – and thus, of students as young people in transition.
- Transition discourse as exclusionary and marginalising: the final section of this paper argues how the popular debates and discussions infantilise the student voice more generally, and often disregard the diversity of the student population- for example, by marginalising mature students through their omission in their construction of students.
Each of these themes foreground students’ voices and these are compared with media representations, and the views of staff and policymakers.
This paper is based upon evidence provided by 295 undergraduate students who took part in 54 focus groups we ran across Europe – in Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain – and 72 members of higher education staff, 26 policy influencers, and newspaper and TV/films from the same six countries. The focus groups were conducted in three higher education institutions (HEIs) in each country, which were sampled to reflect the diversity of the national Higher Education (HE) sector. Participants were asked a series of questions about how they understood what it meant to be a student in their country today and how they thought other people saw them. As part of this, they were asked some specific questions about the extent to which they thought students were significant political actors. Participants were also asked to make plasticine models to represent their identity as students and respond to extracts from policy texts and newspaper articles that discuss students. The focus groups were conducted in English in Denmark, England and Ireland, and in the national language in Germany, Poland and Spain. We also interviewed four members of staff from each of the HEIs in which we conducted the student focus groups. Wherever possible, we tried to recruit both academic and professional services staff. All were interviewed in English, and were asked a variety of questions about how they understood higher education students in their particular institution and their country more generally. Additionally, in each country, 4 or 5 semi-structured interviews were conducted with individuals responsible for formulating higher education policy or whose role involved engaging with policymakers and attempting to influence HE policy – including at least one person from each of the following groups: government ministry (minister or civil servant); national students’ or staff union; organisations representing graduate employers; and organisations representing HEIs Both focus groups and interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed and then coded in NVivo using inductive and deductive codes. All three sets of data – students, staff, and policy influencers – are supplemented with the analysis of media representation of HE students in our sample countries.
A key theme from both the staff and students we spoke to, across Europe, was their understanding of higher education as a distinct phase in the life-course – and thus of students as young people in transition. Students, for example, spoke of the ways in which they believed higher education facilitated personal growth and development, and provided an important space for them to ‘try out’ and learn more ‘adult’ forms of living. This was the case even in Spain, where it is typical for students to remain in the parental home for their studies, and Denmark where students are often older than the European average and thus more likely to have already achieved some of the traditional markers of adulthood- such as living with a partner in independent accommodation. Moreover, while higher education participation rates remain around 50 per cent in most of the nations in our study, it was notable that progression to higher education had come to be seen, even by those from non-traditional backgrounds, as part of a ‘normal’ transition to adulthood, despite the recognition that not all young people can afford to embark upon tertiary-level study. In theorising these patterns, we explore the apparent paradox that while both staff and students consider higher education a critical space to develop socially, practically and emotionally – as well as intellectually – there are also significant data to suggest that student life has become narrower and more circumscribed, with students spending less time on campus and more on activities that are not directly related to their course. Furthermore, we suggest that mature students are often marginalised in these constructions, as students are seen primarily as young people in transition.
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