If you were asked to picture a ‘typical’ university student in your mind, what would you see?
What does the student look like? What nationality is the student? From what socioeconomic background do they come? How old are they?
What’s the backdrop to your picture? Sandstone buildings and green grass? A modern, funky, architecturally designed group of tall buildings in the city? A tree-filled low-rise collection of buildings in the bush?
Chances are, your assumptions about what a ‘typical’ university student means are based on your own experience of university. You are likely to use your own experience as the yardstick of ‘normal’. If you haven’t been to university, you are likely to use the media’s yardstick of ‘normal’. This often involves stock photos of models with impossibly perfect skin, hair and limbs, lying on green grass with ancient looking sandstone buildings in the background.
But things have changed since many media editors went to university. And the ‘typical’ student has taken on a very different meaning.
First, universities have moved from being exclusive and serving only the elite to being inclusive and serving a much larger proportion of the population so that more people have the opportunity to contribute to society and the economy. When they started, universities were only for men of the upper classes. Today, anyone with the opportunity, capability and requisite support can complete a university degree.
That means where they were wholly or largely absent previously, there are now female students – in fact, they are now the majority; students from low socio-economic backgrounds; Indigenous students; students from rural and remote areas; international students – around one quarter of the Australian university student population overall; mature age students; those seeking qualification upgrades; VET pathways students; online students; offshore students; part-time students; flexible entry students; students studying university via partner arrangements or at TAFE; and so on.
It’s now very hard to define a ‘typical’ student.
Second, for the modern student, study is very rarely the sole or even the primary focus of their lives. Students variously engage in paid employment – part-time or full-time; care for children, parents and others; spend time on family and related roles and responsibilities; undertake volunteer work; participate in sport and other recreational activities; manage careers; and even run businesses while they are studying.
The notion of a university student attending the odd class, hung-over from the excesses of cheap beer nights the previous evening applies to a small minority of students in today’s higher education landscape. You are more likely to meet students who are slotting university classes around other commitments, with their study being something that needs to fit into an already crowded schedule.
Third, the advent of the internet has led to a slowly evolving explosion in online and ‘blended’ learning – the blend being between online and face-to-face – and, therefore, a significant increase in students who come on campus less or who never come on campus at all.
Most students are studying in blended mode, with more or less of online and face-to-face components, depending on the university, the discipline area and student preferences. Hundreds of thousands of students across the world choose to study university courses completely online. These students make this choice for a number of reasons, which include convenience, cost-effectiveness, flexibility and the ability to manage their study as part of their full and complex life.
These three changes – along with the many others that have occurred over the turn of the Century – are often either invisible from public view or uncritically assumed to be negative.
For example, we often hear that the expansion of university access equates to a lowering of standards. This is nonsense, as exit standards and not entry standards are where the measurements should be taken.
Many lament the disappearance of the fulltime university student who lived on campus and dedicated their entire focus and life to study. But the realities and pressures of modern life mean that most younger students who do not belong to a small elite have to engage in paid work to survive as students. The realities of older students’ lives are that they are studying while working and/or tending to family and other adult responsibilities. Increasingly curriculum and assessment takes account of these realities and students are able to use their life and work experience to help deepen their understanding of the concepts they are studying. Their work and life experience, in turn, often helps them gain employment in their chosen field on graduation.
Finally, online university students are taught and learn the same curriculum, undertake identical assessment tasks, are able to engage with fellow students and staff online and are awarded exactly the same degree as the students who choose to attend university via physical campuses. Yet, somewhat curiously, they are often not considered ‘real’ students and their outcomes are considered inferior. Yet online students graduate from the same universities, with the same quality of degrees and outcomes, as on campus students, despite the romantic notions that lying around on a lawn with shiny hair helps students learn.
The twenty-first century student experience means many different things to a much wider and broader range of students and their families than it did last century. And hallelujah to that.
A version of this article was first published in The Age newspaper in 2015.
Devlin, M. (March 9, 2015) Today, a ‘typical’ university student could be anyone. The Age: http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/today-a-typical-university-student-could-be-anyone-20150308-13vr2b