Yesterday, I was privileged to chair the joint OU/OfFA seminar on “Understanding the impact of outreach for disadvantaged adult learners“. This event presented the findings from five institutional case studies at the Open University, University of Leeds, University of Bristol and Birkbeck, University of London, preceded by presentations from Fiona Waye (UUK) and David Barratt and Ben Spratt (OfFA). It was when David mentioned his experience as a mature student that I began to reflect on my own journey through HE at the not so tender age of 30, with a small child. There were so many resonances in the case studies which followed that I was prompted to share the highs and lows of that experience. What is so shocking is that 30 years on, so little seems to have changed.
How I got to study for a degree later in life is a whole other story but I was lucky to stumble on a very special course – a standalone Diploma of Higher Education at what was then Manchester Polytechnic, designed specifically to meet the needs of mature students. The beauty of this course was that it was carefully and flexibly structured to allow students to defer their final choice of degree either to the end of the first or second year. Nonetheless, I lived quite far, had a small child and limited access to a car. My daily journey was long and tiring and, because it was also expensive, I had to work part time as well. I was very lucky – grants were still available, I got a nursery place for my daughter and timetabling addressed the needs of those with caring responsibilities.
For the first year, most of my classes were with other adults and the structure gave a lot of choice in terms of subject. The findings presented yesterday pointed to the importance of multi/inter-disciplinarity for returning adult learners, particularly for making the right decision about what to study. Having gone in with every intention of majoring in 19th century literature I surprised myself by combining social sciences with some maths, law, environment and – well, see below! The lecturers were all brilliant (or seemed so to me) but my life and work experience had given me so much to reflect on that light bulbs were popping on all over the place. I loved it all but the toll was heavy. I sat my end of year exams suffering from pleurisy and spent the start of the summer break in hospital with pneumonia. (Did I mention I was just finishing A level French at night school as well?)
Perhaps I made it more challenging for myself. I wanted to study some computer science but there was nothing available in the programme. Through negotiation, which definitely couldn’t happen now for a whole host of reasons, I was able to study two core modules from the computer science degree as ‘additional’ to my programme of study. Oh joy, I was catapulted into an almost all-male environment of 18 year olds – about 80 of them. It wasn’t just the age and gender differences that made me feel ‘other’ – I wasn’t able to participate in student social life. But my status also gave me advantages. I had spent most of the previous ten years as an end-user (such a quaint term) of computers so I probably had better awareness of the things which could go wrong. And, of course, I couldn’t go out partying so I was able to keep well up with coursework.
Gradually the other students got used to me and began to include me in their conversations and eventually, in group work. Looking back, I guess it was quite hard for 18 year old lads to know how to react to me and I think some of the lecturers in that Faculty struggled a bit too! At the seminar there were a number of references to the sense of belonging and I guess you could say that this developed for me over time but in fact, I experience different kinds of belongings – some to do with subject, some with modules and some with cohorts. I still recall the surprise and pleasure I experienced when ‘the lads’ started to say Hi Liz!
In the four years – I went straight on to a Masters – I developed an ability to exist on around 5 or 6 hours sleep a night, being in classes all day, working part time in the evening and weekends, taking care of my child and then studying in the small hours. But I also had to make compromises. The rules for examinations were that you could not leave the room in the last half hour. All my afternoon exams ran until 5.00pm but the nursery closed then and I could not be later than 5.15. So I had to leave all my afternoon exams half an hour early in order to get there giving me two and a half hours for everyone else’s three. Why didn’t I say something to somebody? Well, you just didn’t.
Lessons learned? Resilience is critical. I don’t know if I had it but I was so inspired by learning and succeeding that maybe that is what made me persist. So the teaching has to be really, really good. I can’t say, hand on heart that it all was, but there were some brilliant teachers that more than made up for the weaker ones.
Did I miss anything by not being able to participate in student social life? I don’t think so really. I made friends but none for life, as those who study at 18 often claim.
Did I have social capital before? Did it increase as a result of my student experience? Possibly but I am pretty sure that my increased educational capital gave me far greater self-confidence and self-belief and helped me to find what I wanted to do in life. It also greatly benefitted my daughter who experienced much greater exposure to human diversity in the nursery setting than she would otherwise have done and has developed the same passion for learning.
Most of all, it gave me the passion for what I do now. What was clear yesterday is that we are a little further forward in changing the institution to align with the needs of the learners but there is still a lot to do. The Diploma course I studied was closed down years ago because it didn’t fit in the rigid straitjacket of resource allocation models and modular degree structures. Some of the case studies showed that stepping outside those structures is crucial. Real lifelong learning needs us to keep shouting and shout louder.