Ordinary Jo puts Sebastian to flight

April 21, 2006

Students were once a rare breed, writes Harriet Swain, but now they are anything but extraordinary.

Students and student life have gone from the elite to the commonplace in the past half a century, an academic will tell the British Sociological Association annual conference this week.

Students who are aged 18 and 19 now comprise the largest single career group among their age cohort and at every step have followed the majority route, said Ken Roberts, professor of sociology at Liverpool University.

Typically, they have attended comprehensive schools, where they are among the three quarters or so of 16-year-olds who stay on. Of those who stay on for two years, most go on to university.

Today's students will probably have achieved five GSCEs at grades A to C, but so will more than half of all 16-year-olds.

And, while a fifth of all 18 to 19-year-olds achieve three or more A levels, a third of this age group now enters university.

This in contrast to 50 years ago, when a typical student was one of the few who had passed the 11-plus or attended a fee-paying school, who had done better than average at O level and achieved good A levels.

Professor Roberts said: "Going to university is now a perfectly normal thing to do. Previous generations of students were a select minority."

But he said that today's students neither knew nor cared what student life had been like in the 1960s - the time of the Robbins report into higher education. More relevant to them were comparisons with people from their own age group who did not go to university. In spite of greater debts, student lifestyles and career options remained a superior option.

About three quarters of students still move away from home when they go to university, and students are still involved in more sport, culture and politics than their non-student peers. They also have better physical and mental health and enhanced job prospects. Professor Roberts argues that this means demand for university among young people is likely to remain high.

In a separate paper delivered recently to vice-chancellors, Professor Roberts said that, far from being more demanding of their institutions, most students' main concern nowadays was that universities should not expect too much of them.

"Ordinary students will not expect universities to make demands that exceed the capabilities of ordinary young people who offer less than what was hitherto full-time commitment," he said.

His call for more sociological study of students as a group is echoed in the launch of a study group at the conference to encourage dialogue between lecturers and students in sociology about the learning process.

The group, led by Joyce Canaan, reader in sociology at the University of Central England, will involve students in researching their own experiences.


1963: The way we were...

  • Elite
  • Only 5 per cent of young people attend university
  • A wide choice of graduate jobs
  • Male
  • From fee-paying or selective schools
  • Likely to achieve a 2.2
  • Solvent
  • No term-time job
  • Goes out on campus

2006: How times change...

  • Ordinary
  • More than 40 per cent of young people attend university
  • Two in five chance of starting career in a non-graduate job
  • Female
  • From a non-selective secondary school
  • Likely to achieve a 2.1
  • In debt
  • Term-time job
  • Goes out in town

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