#loveHE: A big step into the grown-up world

Children have some odd ideas about university and what happens there, but they also have lofty ambitions in which they see higher education playing a key role, as Rebecca Attwood and Sarah Cunnane learn from visiting schools for the launch of our #loveHE campaign

March 11, 2010

It is an image straight out of the movies that fits all the stereotypes - and it is how tomorrow's undergraduates view today's professors.

To mark the launch of its #loveHE campaign, Times Higher Education has been visiting schools around the country to find out what pupils think about higher education and university study.

We asked more than 100 students aged 10-18 how they would explain what a university was to someone from Mars, what happens in it, and whether they aspired to go and why.

We wanted to learn about the ways in which young people thought studying at university would be different from studying at school, what sort of people they thought went to university - and what they imagined professors did all day.

To get a mix of students of different ages and from different backgrounds, THE reporters spoke to students from five state schools and one private school, ranging from Year 5 through to sixth form.

The overall message was clear: young people had a strong belief that those who went to university stood a much better chance of doing well in life than those who did not.

Across all the schools visited by THE, aspirations to study at university were extremely high: about three-quarters of the primary school pupils were certain that they wanted to enter higher education.

At the ages of 10 and 11, most already had a clear idea of what they wished to be when they were older, and they viewed university as a key step to achieving their ambition.

The youngest pupils most frequently compared university to school. That is no surprise given their frame of reference: school is where most of them have spent the majority of their lives so far.

But they were aware that although it was in some ways like a school, it was also quite different.

The dissimilarities that most children picked up on were the obvious ones of scale and the age of those who studied there. But there was also an awareness that people went for different reasons: university was also about preparation for the world of work.

"It's like a big school where you study what you want to do when you grow up." (Year 5, state)

"You study for what you want to be when you are older." (Year 6, state)

Many of the primary students were aiming high, even those in schools in deprived areas: they expressed ambitions to work as a vet, a paediatric doctor, an astronomer, a plastic surgeon, a mathematician and an engineer, among other careers.

Even those aiming for types of employment that are not normally associated with degree study - pupils who wished to be hairdressers, firefighters, athletes, beauty therapists and footballers - were under the impression that going to university would help them achieve their goals.

"I might have to go because I want to be a hair salon person." (Year 6, state)

"I want to be a firefighter, and I'm going to go to university to learn that." (Year 5, state)

The strong focus on jobs does not surprise Paul Temple, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London.

"It always has been the overwhelming reason for wanting to go into higher education. The Robbins report on higher education quoted Confucius as saying that it was not easy to find a man who had studied for three years without aiming at pay.

"As the number of people with university degrees increases, so it makes sense for more people to get degrees, because someone with a degree becomes the median person. Employers start looking at you oddly, and you find yourself having to explain why you haven't got a degree," says Temple.

Many youngsters linked not going to university with not achieving - whereas going to university allowed you to "reach what you want" and "reach your goal".

"I want to go because I don't want to be a failure in life." (Year 6, state)

"My brother never went to university or college and he hasn't turned out so well." (Year 6, state)

The high aspirations and the strong association between success and university study found among the pupils THE spoke to accord with the findings of recent research involving more than 600 Year 7 pupils in schools around the country.

The Aimhigher Central London Partnership conducted the study, How Young People Formulate their Views about the Future, for the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It revealed that 75 per cent of students wanted to go to university, with 18 per cent unsure. Only 7 per cent of pupils said they definitely did not want to go.

Even more strikingly, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds were no less likely to want to enter higher education.

As in our school visits, the researchers found that university study was framed mainly in terms of supporting future employment ambitions.

Meanwhile, a recent Ipsos Mori poll of almost 2,500 state school pupils aged 11-16 for the Sutton Trust found that a massive 77 per cent said they were either "fairly likely" or "very likely" to go into higher education.

Graeme Atherton, executive director of Aimhigher WECAN (London West, Central & North Partnership) and one of the authors of the DCSF study, was surprised by both the level and the seriousness of the ambition he and his colleagues identified - as were some of the teachers who sat in on the sessions the researchers held.

He describes how they teased out their views on higher education."We gave pupils ten different alternative routes at 18 - a law student at the University of Oxford, a politics student at Manchester Metropolitan University and various training options. We asked them to rank who they thought was more successful. The students came out top, even among the few who didn't want to go to higher education or who were unsure."

Despite being keen to go to university, primary pupils who spoke to THE did not seem to be under any illusion that university would not involve hard work.

"You have to study a lot." (Year 6, state)

"It would be harder because you would get more homework and it would be more complicated." (Year 6, state)

Some spoke of their horror that students at university might be asked to write big essays - perhaps up to 300 words long; another ventured that university would be "harder than a job".

Many were aware that students in higher education choose what they wish to study (unlike at school, where "you don't have a choice - it is like a prison").

And young children were intrigued by the fact that undergraduates lived on the same campus where they studied. The idea that "you get your own room" and the concept of "dormitories" prompted some expressions of amazement and awe.

But that notion also led one pupil to a disturbing thought - might that also mean that lecturers live at university, too?

"Wouldn't it be a bit creepy having a teacher living in the same place as you?" (Year 6, state)

Asked about the sort of people who went to university, pupils replied that it was those who were "older", "knowledgeable" or "rich". A few said that university students had to be "nerds", but most viewed them as "intelligent" and "clever".

"They (universities) won't just accept anybody if they're not up to scratch." (Year 5, state)

Negative views about university were very much in the minority.

"They shut you in if you are bad. (Interviewer: Do they?) Probably. I don't know. I don't know anyone who goes to college or university." (Year 6, state)

Asked why universities existed, the same pupil responded: "To bore people to death and make people have lots of headaches."

In their research, Atherton and his colleagues found that there was a flip side to pupils' high levels of ambition - their knowledge of how to achieve their goals was extremely poor.

"A lot of them wanted to go to university, but not all of them realised how to get there," he explains. "They did not know what the difference between college and university was or whether the job they wanted to do needed a degree. The knowledge gap was very big."

Pupils' views about which university they might wish to attend were partial and patchy.

Where they offered answers, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were by far the most favoured institutions, according to the report to the DCSF.

Among the youngest students who spoke to THE, knowledge was variable. While some pupils could name a string of universities, including Ivy League institutions in the US, there was also a lot of confusion. Some cited colleges rather than universities; one thought there was a university called "Cassio" - the name of a local college. One even believed there was a university called "Rabbit".

Pupils tended to be aware of universities located near to them, and were often more able to cite places where they thought a university existed than to give a university's name.

Thinking about academics and their work, primary students tended to conjure up images of wizards and mad professors. Most prominent in the youngsters' views about what professors did were Hogwarts (the school of witchcraft and wizardry in the Harry Potter books and films), men with white hair who did science experiments and complex mathematical formulae.

"They mix chemicals and blow each other up. They touch a wire and their hair shoots up. Professors on TV - all their hair is always sticking up." (Year 6, state)

"They do very hard equations and then the students have to figure it out." (Year 6, state)

One claimed "they talk posh", but a fellow pupil rebutted: "My uncle knows a professor that doesn't talk like that at all."

Another stated that professors spent their time engaged in rocket science.

Among the primary school pupils, most said the main purpose of studying at university was to prepare for a job. A few, however, did mention the desire to learn, or their interest in a particular subject.

One wanted to go to university "because there is so much knowledge I don't know yet" (Year 5, state), and another because "I would get to learn more things" (Year 6, state).

A third had a sense that it was somewhere one could develop expertise.

"It's so you can excel at something you want to be good at." (Year 6, state)

THE also talked to students in secondary school. Here, pupils began to express the idea that university would involve a different type of study: independent learning.

Several said university would be different from school because students would not be spoon-fed and would have to be self-directed.

These notions were particularly pronounced among sixth-form students, at both the state and the private school visited.

"It'll be more individual and self-motivated." (lower sixth, state)

"People won't chase you up. You've got to do it yourself." (lower sixth, state)

Independent school pupils were also aware that university was a place for conversation and debate.

"It'll be a lot more discussion-led learning, rather than from textbooks." (lower sixth, private)

As a university teacher, Temple says he is "delighted" by these comments.

"The idea that university is not about 'spoon-feeding' has clearly been dinned into these kids' heads," he says.

"They can see that it is going to be different studying at university and that you've got to be more motivated. It is good that people in sixth forms have understood that."

In their discussions, the sixth-formers began to focus on the idea of a passion for a subject.

"You go to study a specific course that you're interested in." (lower sixth, state)

"University is for exploring a subject of interest. It shouldn't be just about getting a degree, but about an opportunity to really learn about something." (lower sixth, private)

"It's about the pursuit of a passion." (lower sixth, private)

Atherton says this challenges the stereotypical view of today's students as being focused entirely on results and getting a job.

"I think there is a view that young people are very instrumental and that they're not really interested in going to university to learn anything apart from just getting a degree at the end of it. That isn't really the case.

"It's important to them - it's crucial in some cases - but it's not solely about that."

In secondary school, the social side of higher education begins to loom large: several students at both the state and the independent school said that they want to go to university to "party".

"I wouldn't say it was just to learn, I'd say it's also to have those kind of experiences where you can go a little bit crazy and it doesn't matter because you're at university so you can party if you want to. It's your time to be completely free because you're not with your parents, so you can completely go wild." (upper sixth, private)

The idea of going to university to escape parents is a popular one, which tickles Temple. "For many, the main thing is to get as far away from home as possible - which is exactly what I thought when I went to university, too. But that is obviously linked to the ideas of self-development and becoming more independent and so on."

At one of the state sixth forms, however, all the pupils were applying to local post-1992 universities rather than seeking places at more distant and less familiar sites.

Asked if they'd feel comfortable going to Oxford or Cambridge, younger pupils at the same school replied: "No, I haven't got the brains for that", and "It would make me feel stupid." (Year 11, state)

It was noticeable that although no one in another state lower sixth had fixed on which university they would like to attend, their counterparts at the independent school had quite clear ideas, even if their decisions had not been finalised.

"Edinburgh - for medicine. In terms of pioneering different techniques and developing the world of medicine, Edinburgh is supposed to be very good." (lower sixth, private)

"Definitely somewhere down south. I'm not really sure where exactly. Exeter would be quite good ... It's near Cornwall for surfing as well." (lower sixth, private)

Perhaps the predominant view among sixth-formers was a vision of university as a time and place of transition, bridging the world of school and the world of work, adolescence and adulthood and dependency and independence.

"It's more about learning to live on your own." (lower sixth, state)

"You live by yourself and learn to manage your money better and stuff." (lower sixth, state)

"It's kind of like a transition phase between the safety net of school and being thrown out into the independent world." (upper sixth, private)

Some found the thought of this interim stage uncomfortable and unsettling; others enjoyed the idea of postponing their entry into the job market.

"I don't feel I'm personally ready to enter reality and find a career." (lower sixth, private)

"I considered not going for a while ... I didn't really like the idea of the limbo state. It's sort of a bit cushy and pretend for a while and I didn't want to be like that." (upper sixth, private)

At the same school, another spoke of the burden of responsibility that went hand in hand with the new-found freedom.

"It can be quite liberating, but at the same time it's the first time we face reality in the world. We live by ourselves, for ourselves, and have to think for ourselves and for our own interests. Teachers aren't going to tell us what to do. So in one respect it can be liberating but it is more responsibility." (lower sixth, private)

Expectations from parents and teachers featured particularly strongly among those at the independent school. In both the state and private school, pupils thought some students went to university "just because everyone else does".

"The idea that I wouldn't go to university hasn't been discussed or even touched on. With teachers or parents, it's always been an unspoken thing that I would go." (upper sixth, private)

"It's a lot down to parents as well. They've paid for us to go through all this education, and they expect us to go and do more and get a higher-earning job. I think it would be pretty brave to stand up to your parents and say, 'No, I don't want to go to university, I want to do something else.' I don't think I'd be able to do that." (upper sixth, private)

One sixth-former was certain about going to university despite not having selected a subject of study, while another viewed university as a good place for those suffering from indecision.

"I want to go, but I'm not entirely sure what I want to do. There's nothing I'm that passionate about." (lower sixth, state)

"I'm a bit directionless, and it seems like a decent place to go. It keeps your options open." (upper sixth, private)

One student at the private school was unhappy with the idea that some people may enter university solely to fulfil the expectations of others.

"People should make their own personal choice about whether or not to go to uni. It shouldn't be seen as a natural follow-on. People should not be taking courses at university if they are not interested in them." (lower sixth, private)

At the same time, however, the students acknowledged that some young people from backgrounds different from theirs might rule out university study for the wrong reasons.

"There may be pupils in certain schools who assume that university is not for them, and universities should be proactive in changing their minds on that subject." (lower sixth, private)

Interestingly, the private school pupils had conflicting views about the type of people they might encounter at university.

According to one, university would mean "mixing with people from all different backgrounds", but another argued that "as you move further in education it just narrows and you get a certain kind of person from a certain kind of social background".

Temple says he is impressed by the sophistication of the sixth-formers' ideas about higher education.

These included the idea that university study was necessary because of the growing complexity of the world.

"Whereas before you'd be able to go into a certain profession with just the basic knowledge of school, nowadays you have to know so much more." (upper sixth, private)

While the dominant view was that the primary purpose of universities was teaching and helping people on their way in life - "universities are there for students" - both sixth-form groups understood that universities also conducted research.

"A lot of the science stuff, a lot of the research, is actually discovered at universities. Loads of discoveries are actually made by people at uni, so it's there not just for teaching but for finding out things as well." (lower sixth, state)

Temple comments: "At least some of them realise that universities do more than teach young people, and that is actually quite a sophisticated understanding of what universities do."

The sixth-formers from the private school were fairly well informed about what university professors did.

"Someone who writes papers and books on the subject they specialise in, writing more in-depth analysis on their subject than previous researchers have - writing new opinions on the topic rather than mere impartial facts." (lower sixth, private)

"They're all highly peer respected - people who are at the top of their field." (upper sixth, private)

Another idea discussed by the same group was the concept of universities producing wider benefits for society.

"I think there's a higher purpose to universities than teaching ... The purpose isn't to educate per se, it's to produce bigger, higher things, intellectual ideas." (upper sixth, private)

"There's also that societal aspect to it. It's both there for students to grow and develop, but it's also there for research, and a large part of a university's grading is how much they put into research. So I think there's something they can contribute; they can give something not just to those who have paid to go there and study there but also to wider society in science, medicine, economics." (upper sixth, private)

Students were not asked directly for their views on the cost of university. Nonetheless, despite the prominence of the issue, tuition fees were rarely remarked upon by pupils.

A few of the very youngest did mention the cost of higher education. One who said "you've got to pay for university - it is kind of expensive" was immediately contradicted by another who said "You get paid for going - you get £30 a week" (presumably a reference to the Education Maintenance Allowance, which is worth up to £30 a week for young people enrolled on a further education course).

References to expense were even scarcer among students in secondary school.

"It is interesting that fees didn't really figure," Temple says.

"To use one of my colleague David Watson's favourite phrases, it is 'The dog that didn't bark in the night'. Although there wasn't a particular question that would have led people to do that, there would have been lots of opportunity for people to raise it.

"Fees have now just become part of the landscape - no one is saying: 'Oh well, I was thinking about it but it is a bit pricey so I don't know.' That's not what many people anticipated back in 2006.

"Presumably they have seen older people and brothers and sisters go off to university, and it didn't seem to be the end of the world. There are fees, but there are ways around it."

For Atherton, the fascination in exploring young people's aspirations about their futures lies in discovering how their views change.

He and his colleagues are now examining the same themes via research with pupils in Years 8-12. "Our idea is to try to work out at what point expectations start to change. Is there a tipping point?"

He believes that with young people's aspirations already so high at such an early age, it makes sense to provide them with some early information and guidance about how to achieve their ambitions.

"At the age of 11, these kids are thinking about the future," he says. "OK, they are going to change their minds and go down different routes, but they are thinking about it, and there needs to be some work with them.

"By the time the schools get around to doing something constructive with them, which is probably coming up to Year 9, they've been thinking about these things for four or five years.

"And the problem is they get these ideas and expectations and ideas about what they want to get to do and then when they get to Year 9, they think, 'I can't do this: it's going to be really hard.'

"Our worry is that if they realise that they can't be what they wanted to be, and they are not aware of other options, that then leads to disengagement. They might think, 'Well, I won't do anything' - and all those aspirations will be lost."


If I were from Mars and I asked what a university was, what would you say?

- A fancy school where you learn lots of things (Year 6, Alban Wood)

- School after your secondary school where you're getting ready to go as a grown-up (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- You can study to be a nurse or childminder or hair and make-up (Year 6, Comber Grove)

- A place where adults are told what to do (Year 6, Comber Grove)

What happens there?

- Lots of tests until you get high grades (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- It's kind of like now but you're a lot older and you learn a lot of different things and you can either sleep there or you go back to your house or get a flat (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- You do courses and stuff (Year 6, Alban Wood)

What sort of people go to university?

- People who are quite clever - they won't just accept anybody if they're not up to scratch (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- Very rich people (Year 6, Alban Wood)

- Whoever wants to go (Year 6, Alban Wood)

- Kids desperate for a girlfriend. That's what my brother's going to go for (Year 6, Comber Grove)

- It depends what university it is. They have ratings of the good universities. If you are middle, you go to 42 or something like that. If you are really smart, you go to somewhere like Oxford (Year 6, Comber Grove)

Why do people go?

- They go and teach you a subject so you can have a career in your life so you can have some money to live on (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- So they don't have to stay at home (Year 6, Alban Wood)

- Some people don't go to university. Some jobs you don't need to go to university but some you do, you need to qualify (Year 6, Comber Grove)

How many of you want to go to university? If so, why?

- I want to have a brighter future and a good job (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- I want to go to university because I want to be a footballer and if the footballer don't work out I want to be a stockbroker (Year 6, Comber Grove)

- I want to make my mum and dad proud (Year 6, Alban Wood)

- I want to be a mathematician (Year 6, Comber Grove)

- Because there is so much knowledge I don't know yet (Year 6, Comber Grove) If not, why not?

- I want to be a footballer, so I want to go to an academy (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- I just want a normal life (Year 6, Alban Wood)

- It's too much hassle after school (Year 6, Alban Wood)

In what ways do you think studying at university would be different from studying at school?

- It might be more boring (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- You'd be more trustworthy, so you'd be doing experiments on explosives (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- The teachers are far more strict (Year 6, Alban Wood)

- You have to do more stuff by yourself; you have to buy stuff for yourself; you've got to have a job on the side (Year 6, Comber Grove)

- At school you don't have a choice - it is like a prison (Year 6, Comber Grove)

What is a professor and what do professors do?

- It specialises in one subject and doesn't do English, maths and science like Mrs Lincoln (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- A Hogwarts teacher (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- They write unusual things on the board. Yeah, that's so confusing (Year 6, Comber Grove)

What is a university for?

- It's there to help you as a future adult of the world (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- It's not just for students. Sometimes the adults get a job so they can teach us, so it gives them a job, too (Year 5, Leavesden Green)

- Teaching them the responsibility of job life (Year 6, Alban Wood)

- So that certain jobs don't fall into the wrong people's hands - like if someone wanted to take away playtime or something (Year 6, Comber Grove)

- They (universities) are big buildings, so that if you go to a different country and see a university loads of people think 'this country's smart'. It's just for image (Year 6, Comber Grove)

Can you name some universities?

- There's this university - Rabbit? (Year 6, Alban Wood)

- King's College, LSE, Imperial, London Met, Brunel (Year 6, Alban Wood)

- Harbour (Harvard) - I think that's in America (Year 6, Comber Grove)

- Oxford, like Libby in EastEnders (Year 6, Comber Grove)

- There's one in Elephant (and Castle) (Year 6, Comber Grove)

Times Higher Education visited three state primary schools: Leavesden Green and Alban Wood in Watford, Hertfordshire and Comber Grove in Camberwell, London.


If I had no concept of what a university was, how would you explain it to me?

- It's where you get a degree (George Green, Years 9-13)

- It's where you go after finishing compulsory education to get you ready for work (King Edward VI School, Year 11)

What happens there?

- You party (George Green, Years 9-13)

- It's a mix of lectures with some more hands-on approaches, trying to further your understanding of what you want to know (King Edward VI School, Year 11)

What sort of people go?

- People who want to achieve their dreams (George Green, Years 9-13)

- People with more academic jobs; engineers, mechanics (King Edward VI School, Year 11)

- People who can be bothered. Some people can't be bothered and just end up working at McDonald's or whatever (King Edward VI School, Year 9)

Why do people go there?

- To get a better chance of getting a job (George Green, Years 9-13)

- To improve their understanding of their subject (King Edward VI School, Year 11)

How many of you want to go to university? If so, why?

- I want to be able to get a good job and earn lots of money so I'm not living in a horrible place (King Edward VI School, Year 9)

- I've been planning it since I was about seven. My brother and sister are already there, and it sounds so much fun (King Edward VI School, Year 10) If not, why not?

- It's more work (George Green, Years 9-13)

- My mum said I'd find college easier, and uni would be pretty hard (King Edward VI School, Year 9)

How would studying at uni be different from studying at school?

- You don't get spoon-fed like you do here (George Green, Years 9-13)

- It'll be more focused, more independent, and people will want to be there (King Edward VI School, Year 11)

- You have to do a lot more there, and it's very important and very hard (King Edward VI School, Year 9)

- People won't be as annoying, shouting at you and stuff (King Edward VI School, Year 10)

What is a professor and what do professors do?

- Sort of like a teacher who will take on lectures and be the person who teaches the students (King Edward VI School, Year 11)

- They went to university to study and do something they're really interested in (King Edward VI School, Year 9)

- A person who is a bit OTT on science (King Edward VI School, Year 10)

What is a university's purpose?

- To get a degree (George Green, Years 9-13)

- Social aspects, too - it's there for people to socialise (George Green, Years 9-13)

- Differentiator for employers (King Edward VI School, Year 11)

- Gives people a chance to learn to fend for themselves, away from their parents (King Edward VI School, Year 10)

Times Higher Education visited two state schools: George Green in Tower Hamlets, London and King Edward VI in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.


The founders of the University of Sheffield and the London School of Economics had it right with the Latin strapline from Virgil: "rerum cognoscere causas", which I loosely translate as "discovering why things are the way they are".

- Andrew West, director of student services, University of Sheffield

A university is a community of intelligent beings who willingly and enthusiastically gather to discuss the pressing issues of their time, and times hitherto. Prizes are awarded for the finest and most coherent contributions, and the overall atmosphere is one of conviviality and collegiality. Hierarchical structures and any hint of bureaucracy are strictly prohibited.

- Alan Sandry, lecturer in social and political theory, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff

Imagine a blank slate, a tabula rasa, and then consider the most important questions that concern you and your society. A university is a place where those questions are addressed and the progress towards an answer is recorded. This process is what we call the gaining of knowledge and the dissemination of knowledge.

- Dominic Newbould, director of external relations, Open University Worldwide

Somewhere where inquisitive and open-minded people are sent to learn that they should not aspire to read difficult or challenging works but instead should memorise handouts and textbook chapters.

- David Chandler, professor of international relations, University of Westminster

They are there for the social good, to improve lives, to create new knowledge, to train and educate successive generations, and to set public agendas about social and economic priorities.

- Helen Fulton, director, Research Institute for Arts and Humanities, Swansea University

Fundamentally, universities are for learning and discovery. A university should encourage communities of learning and research and should be an environment for pursuing creative, innovative and risky ideas.

- Claire Taylor, head of learning and teaching, Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln

Oscar Wilde once spoke of people "who know the price of everything and the value of nothing". The role and function of universities is measured in values, not in prices. They need to be protected from the vagaries of market economies: they are the sacred spaces that should not be touched, policed, censored or manipulated by short-term considerations.

- Efrat Tseelon, chair in fashion theory, University of Leeds

Although they are increasingly run like business and commercial entities, they can be "business-like" but are not businesses. They are still publicly funded, largely, so despite an attempt to drive in "new public management" ideas, they are still publicly accountable entities.

- Joyce Liddle, professor of public management, Nottingham Business School

If you know what a school is, and a company, well, it's like a big school with lots of teaching and learning. Or a big company, with lots of money-chasing. Or it's a cross between the two. Or neither of the two ... It's a place led by professional managers or by managerial professors or by neither. A place where everyone is running energetically about. Or where nobody is. Or it's all of the above. Or some of the above. Or none of the above. I hope that helps clarify things ...

- Gillian Ania, reader in Italian and head of the Italian section, University of Salford


What is a university?

- A place of higher education where you go to study a specific course that you're interested in (King Edward VI, lower sixth)

- It follows on to your job, like a gateway (King Edward VI, lower sixth)

- Pursuit of a passion, a place of aspiration. Rather than just learning texts and doing an exam, you learn something you enjoy. You interact with the practical world, taking in knowledge from the theory (Royal Grammar School, lower sixth)

What happens there?

- Lectures. You do lots of work by yourself, too (King Edward VI, lower sixth)

- You don't have set classes; you have lectures and peer groups and study independently, taking down what you think you need rather than being spoon-fed (Royal Grammar School, lower sixth)

What type of people go to university?

- It's not a specific type of person. It's not just smart people. Specific types of people go to Cambridge or Oxford, but they won't be the same types that go to some other universities (King Edward VI, lower sixth)

- There can be no stereotype. It's part of the benefit and virtue of university that you'll mix with people from all different backgrounds (Royal Grammar School, upper sixth)

Why do people go to university?

- If you want to do well, it's something that helps you achieve that (King Edward VI, lower sixth)

- I don't think there is any one reason. It is advantageous for higher-skilled careers, but I think some people go purely because they enjoy the subject and they want to study it further because it's interesting. Some people go just because everyone else does - they don't really think for themselves in that respect (Royal Grammar School, upper sixth)

Do you want to go to university?

- It's just something I want to do - for the experience and for what comes after it (King Edward VI, lower sixth)

- It would be a total waste of time if you went to sixth form for two years and then didn't do anything afterwards (King Edward VI, lower sixth)

- I can't decide what I want to do at university or do as a career, so I think university will be a good stopgap to help me decide what to do (Royal Grammar School, lower sixth)

What do you think a professor is?

- They're people who've done something and then decided - actually, I want to teach this. You lecture as an afterthought, once you've gone off and done a lot of stuff (King Edward VI, lower sixth)

- A professor is the head of a certain subject and the teachers give lectures to the students. They're qualified in a doctorate of a certain subject and then go on to lecture on it at university, and that's how they become a professor (Royal Grammar School, lower sixth)

What is a university's purpose?

- Giving people opportunities - in different countries and so on (King Edward VI, lower sixth)

- Universities are there for students. It's a way of stopping people being ignorant about a subject and helping them to become more knowledgeable about a subject, and to a higher level (Royal Grammar School, lower sixth)

- The purpose isn't to educate you per se, it's to produce bigger, higher things, intellectual ideas (Royal Grammar School, upper sixth)

Times Higher Education spoke to sixth-form students at King Edward VI, a state school in Bury St Edmunds, and Royal Grammar School, an independent school in Newcastle.

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