My first impression when I went to this university was very positive. The person I spoke to just made me feel completely at home because he said when I started as a mature student and that’s what I wanted to hear.
He asked me about my experience so far and treated it as though it was something important, something worthwhile talking about and interesting and then he gave me chance to prove myself although I didn’t have the conventional qualifications, to prove myself by doing a written piece of writing which gave me access to the course.
Quite pleased because I felt I was intelligent enough to get onto a course, intelligent enough but not educated enough, I didn’t have the certificates to prove it and this was my chance to do so.
I've no way of knowing really to be honest
I’ve nothing really to compare it without I imagine that obviously with the engineering and those sort of sciences you do need to show that you’ve gone through the steps, yes I can imagine there would be the difference, yeah..
My course is like a general introduction to socio-economic, political, even psychological studies and as you go through from one year to the next you can concentrate more on the areas that you find you are interested in but you don’t regret having done other areas which
you weren’t particularly fascinated by because it’s building blocks and you build on the last one before you go onto the next one. I found it really hard work fitting - think fitting 6 subjects in one year is quite a lot to fit in. It would be nice if it was just 5 perhaps but that’s
life. The deadlines are really hard work but I suppose you’ve got to have them so that’s okay. I chose to study full-time so I can’t really complain.
I find the university itself a rather alienating environment. In the library it is difficult to concentrate - there are always people chatting, letting doors bang and so on. It’s mostly minor practical things like the long two bus journeys that I have and the fact that there ís nowhere to base yourself. You can’t make yourself a coffee - you haven’t got a room of
your own, not even a locker. You have to carry everything there and back every day and pay 82p for a drink, like a shopper going round town. You can’t find anywhere to have a nap if you’re tired and I love catnapping - it just revives me instantly. Study rooms get
really hot. The food canteens are not as good as I’d expect but it's great - I could stay all
day reading in the library – it’s a fantastic resource.
There ís just so much there - and I think of it as an archive - as time goes on the more and more, the older stuff gets more and more important - the fact that it’s still there because if
you compare it for example with the internet there’s loads of stuff on the internet but it’s all pretty current. The old stuff hasn’t necessarily been archived, it can just be switched off.
Lack of grass roots involvement, choices and accountability - altogether you are treated more like a consumer than a participant but with no customer services hotline. You’ve
very much following a series of chosen paths like levels in a computer game. The choices
are just which subjects, not fundamentals like where, when and how to study - it’s not a
democracy, it’s an institution. It’s not what I’d expected coming from the voluntary sector
where every organisation is run by a committee that the grass roots can contact and appeal to. You can even put yourself forward to join the committees. Student Union’s just not the same, to me that’s like being invited to be a critic in the audience, not to have a share in
running the show. Here they ask for one student rep from our group - just one - why not all of us? Why not an open forum meeting every few months to feed all our comments - big and small - through to the management. Why not a suggestion box at least? Where is the annual report to students? Where s the accountability?
It was a surprise to find my course entirely full of 18 year old white kids - they all look the same. There must be less than 5% mature students which is a shame. The youngsters are so docile in the classroom, like sheep, they never challenge anything, they just don’t know loads of stuff like recent British history, politics. Of course, it’s easier if you’ve lived through it but I don’t think some of them even listen to the news. I feel sorry for anyone
just studying the National Curriculum. The mature students mostly got kids, like me, I’ve got teenagers, some also work, have other activities, some are even doing other courses at the same time, they know how to push themselves. Even so, a lot feel unconfident at the university. They just don’t get what’s required of them, at least for the first year. I was a mentor when I started my second year for an adult in her first year. She said I really helped in lending an ear and explaining things. Mentoring ís a really good system. I wish I’d had one when I started.
Co-operative work, team work, committee skills. The whole emphasis is on developing you as an individual. You will become a researcher, not a team. We are also carefully told how to avoid plagiarism but people are afraid to actually work together - in fact, university doesn’t teach team work in general. It could. In reality there are vital committee skills some graduates won’t come across till they get to the workplace, making them look naive. I mean practical things like meetings, having agendas, minutes, standing orders and so on. In the voluntary sector I’d been used to organisations having good, well worked out policies and procedures which are publicly available documents. Here, the nearest we got was one session on ground rules in an introductory course which was never repeated, reviewed or built upon.
Value and experiences, using skills and building your self-esteem. Something I got from training as an adult trainer was an appreciation of good methods in bringing out what people already have as a starting point for education. Lectures are obviously pretty much one way but seminars don’t have to be. I was taught to be a facilitator not a teacher with the
idea that the group works together towards a result. The process of doing this is educational. It builds up self-esteem because everyone contributes - their input is valued. Their previous experiences in life and skills and attributes in group work come out. There is no time for that here. Seminars are mostly just tutors trying to get kids to talk about what they’ve understood from the text of some great intellectual man who’s probably dead now. Perhaps that is just in social science, I don’t know.
Social justice, rights, respect, equality and diversity - all these things are central to the
objectives in the voluntary sector. I am sure they are here in the mission statement for the university but the reality is different. The staff seem to be 100% white. I am on a course which must be about 98% white. Why aren’t people screaming about that? Where are the anti-racism posters around the place? It’s as if no-one wants to stir up agitation for a
change. One good thing is that here in working-class South Yorkshire the university does open its library doors and other facilities to everyone although it doesn’t make a point of advertising the fact - perhaps they think that would cause trouble. Perhaps they’re not proud enough of the community focus part of the mission.
Activism, forums, notice-boards. I was expecting university to be a hive of student activities like it perhaps was in the 1960’s but it’s not, as many people have said. The student societies are, to say the least, not high profile. This is a shame because it’s such a learning experience for people’s skills trying to organise something. One reason is that there are so few lively, open notice-boards where activities can be advertised. The few existing notice-boards are glass-covered, it’s not obvious if they’re for student use and
people secretly try to slide notices through the glass where they just stay there for months curling up. Split between several campuses there’s no feeling of a sort of open forum for
stalls. It’s as if a vital source is missing.
True engagement with the community. Before I’d started at university I’d seven years or more with the credit unions which is part of the voluntary sector. It has it’s own culture perhaps, but it has good principles and tools which are used. Principles like diversity, equality, co-operation, mutual respect, rights and social justice, user management, community management, local provision and grass roots basis and a critical awareness of power structures.
Democracy, self-esteem building and capacity building, accessible facilities with childcare if necessary, environmental awareness, accountability and sustainable progress. Useful tools include the use of ground rules for meetings, experiential learning, valuing people’s
own experience, avoidance of jargon and good policies and procedures. The Hallam volunteering project has an impressive track record and it’s obviously a step in the right direction. It gets students out of the ivory towers or out of the pub and into the community for some real-life experience. But I wonder how this impacts on the organisations they work with. There is such a thing as institutional memory and I wonder whether they're having a good or a bad experience with student volunteers in those organisations. The local voluntary action organisations could advise on this but I never heard much about Hallam volunteering when I worked in the voluntary sector. It may be a false impression but they seem to come for one-off projects, then go away to write up their experiences. For the full-time volunteers and clients of others in the voluntary sector it must feel a little bit like being experimented on I think. I’d like to think that students could be prepared with an idealistic visionary missionary statement in their minds about the voluntary sector - perhaps a course on community work, it’s principles, it’s forward-looking ideals. The
voluntary and community sector is historic – it ís immense, it ís something Britain should
be proud of. If this vision met the hard reality of imperfect organisations, over the years something would rub off for the organisations as well as the students and it would be a two-way learning experience. There are many hard-working development workers in most
fields who would be grateful to show the ropes and get some real student volunteers if they came along with some grounding like this.
The vision I would have of being a self-directed learner would be spending hours in the library and hours on the internet looking things up. With the guidance of an essay title, perhaps a list of resources that are recommended, web-site links, books by key writers on the subject but not an open brief, definitely working towards an agreed or a set title and writing an essay about that. Yeah it would be nice, it would be nice to have a completely free hand in setting an objective and working an open-ended way to collect data. The nearest I’ve come to that type of experience is in the final year dissertation but even that is
within you have to choose within a subject area and then within that you can almost by negotiation choose your own title for the essay or piece of work. I think I’ve found it quite liberating to be released from the confines of writing an essay - an essay is rather like, well I suppose that is the whole discipline of it - narrowing your words and your thoughts down to one and a half thousand words, certain format, very strict - yeah, that's difficult, it is an art in itself but I’d much rather be doing something open-ended given the freedom and the
flexibility to determine the limits myself. Yeah, I’ve seen people walking round with cameras, with questionnaire sheets. It seems as though I’m guessing, I might be wrong, but it seems as though they’re following year after year the same pattern so I imagine that cohorts of students come round every year and ask the same passers-by the same series of questions. In the first year or two of university is certainly following orders, like following a worksheet or following what you’ve been told to do. In my particular field I’d like to be more in contact with other people discussing working on the same areas. I think I like websites and I’d like to think, for one example off the top of my head, that I was working to
a cumulative sort of website where we were each contributing pieces of work in the areas that we’re interested in which would build up as a resource over several years so that new students could come along and be shown this website - look at this as a resource and contribute and discuss with the people currently working on the website. That’s just one idea. Other things that make studying interesting would be student publications which were not reviews of pubs and bands and so on but on the topic so perhaps if the university had a tradition of contributing to the journals. There ís a massive, massive range of journals which are great to read and very intellectual and some universities I think have this tradition of contributing and I haven’t seen anybody at undergraduate level making a
contribution - you can do.