Living education – changing the generations

Almost everyone entering university or college this year was born later than the World Wide Web. In itself this is a piece of trivia, but it provoked me to think more widely about the ways that different generations view education, and about the way that changing education systems help in turn to form generations.

Access to mass higher education is one example. In his book on the purpose of universities, Stefan Collini ponders the way in which the clichés of elite higher education are still used. Think of such terms as ‘ivory tower’ or ‘port-swilling dons’, for example. Although these terms were born when one person in twenty entered higher education, you don’t have to wait long to hear them in media discussions of higher education today.

You can imagine how these terms sound to a typical student of the twenty-first century. For today’s young people, higher education is the normal route between school and the labour market. Around one third of young Britons, and over half of young Irish people, go on higher education – far more than go into training, apprenticeships, jobs or further education. This isn’t an exciting induction into tomorrow’s elite, it is just what everyone else around you is doing.

The ‘higher education experience’ too has changed. It is far more diverse, encompassing courses offered in colleges, as well as a growing number of private institutions. The subject mix has changed, most notably in favour of business and accountancy. And while many students still take degrees, large numbers in Britain take other qualifications such as Foundation Degrees or Higher Nationals.

Then there is that WWW factoid. Of course, generations are complex formations, and their experiences of communications technologies are only a small part of what makes each generation more or less distinctive. Here’s another factoid: until they were in their fifth year, this summer’s school-leavers went through all their education under New Labour. Some will have gone through New Labour parenting interventions like Sure Start.

So why do the old clichés linger on, well past their use-by date? It is always tempting to blame lazy journalism, but that won’t do. One reason, quite simply, is that most journalists who write about higher education went to university themselves some years ago. And most university readers had their ideas about further and higher education shaped by their own experiences – which, given the age profile of news consumers, was also some years ago. In popular culture, these clichés were reinforced by costume dramas such as Brideshead Revisited and Willy Russell’s rom-com, Educating Rita, while ideas about further education were burnished by the scabrous novels of Tom Sharpe.

Generational differences of these kinds matter a great deal. Some years ago I was involved in a study of adult returners in further education. We found that many people were very badly informed about colleges, believing that they catered mainly for young people undertaking apprenticeships – because this had been what colleges did when they left school.

And we can, to some extent, project these generational differences forward. For anyone born after 1991, ubiquitous access to the WWW is pretty much a given. We have already seen how the internet has changed our students’ approach to their studies – ranging from their ability to find information to the possibilities of cheating. We have also seen how many professors and lecturers, coming from an older generation with less internet exposure, have struggled to keep up.

Without a major investment in upskilling by universities, this generational gap will now accelerate. And universities’ ability to engage the new generation of students and nurture their love of learning will critically depend on their capacity for connecting with their cultural expectations and norms, including a view of the internet and digital media as nothing special.

How we encourage the media to understand today’s higher education system in all its complexity is another matter. Assuming, that is, that we aren’t better off keeping them in a state of ignorance.

If you want to read more on this topic, try my paper on biography and generation in educational and social research: