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Amid debates about the future of both higher education and Europeanisation, this book is the first full-length exploration of how Europe’s 35 million students are understood by key social actors across different nations.
The various chapters compare and contrast conceptualisations in six nations, held by policymakers, higher education staff, media and students themselves. With an emphasis on students’ lived experiences, the authors provide new perspectives about how students are understood, and the extent to which European higher education is homogenising. They explore various prominent constructions of students – including as citizens, enthusiastic learners, future workers and objects of criticism.
To help contextualise the arguments that follow in the book, this introductory chapter discusses previous scholarship that has explored, first, the extent to which students have become increasingly similar as a result of processes of globalisation and, with respect to students in Europe in particular, Europeanisation. It then considers some of the dominant ways in which students have been constructed and analysed in the academic literature. Following this, it provides detail about the empirical research upon which Constructing the Higher Education Student: Perspectives from across Europe is based, before giving a brief overview of the countries in which data were collected and the structure of the book.
This chapter discusses how students are constructed as ‘in transition’ – typically in terms of transitioning to future employment but also growing as individuals – with notable variations across countries. These variations can be explained by differences in HE funding regimes, national traditions of tertiary education, cultural norms, and other socio-historical factors. While, in general, being ‘in transition’ was viewed positively, the chapter suggests that it sometimes has the effect of marginalising students, through their positioning as ‘not yet fully adult’. Indeed, this may have implications for understanding students’ roles as political actors and citizens in their own right.
The chapter begins by briefly outlining some of the ways in which the ‘student as citizen’ has been understood in the extant literature. It then goes on to examine the perspectives of students themselves, arguing that they often positioned themselves clearly as citizens – with a responsibility to think and act critically. While acting as a citizen was not necessarily viewed as synonymous with being politically engaged, many students did also consider themselves to be – potentially at least – significant political actors, but believed that their capacity to effect change in this way was often constrained by others. The chapter then compares these student perspectives with the views of other actors, contending that while a certain degree of ambivalence is evident in media portrayals of students, staff and policy actors were much more likely to reject the construction of students as active and engaged citizens.
A number of sociological studies of European HE have argued that processes of marketisation and neo-liberalisation have adversely impacted students’ learner identities. However, such claims have been subject to limited empirical scrutiny, particularly outside England. This chapter explores how students’ learning behaviour was perceived by different social actors across six European countries. It argues that while university staff members and policymakers constructed students as passive and instrumental learners, students themselves placed considerable emphasis on their commitment to and enjoyment of learning. Moreover, it discusses how students’ learner identities were mediated by discipline of study, illustrating how students felt that those studying STEM subjects were viewed as being more worthy and serious learners than social science students. Finally, it analyses how social class shaped learner identities in different ways, from impacting how students viewed the purpose of HE to the amount of time they could dedicate to their studies.
This chapter outlines how the construction of students as future workers is important to all the social actors involved in our study, but nevertheless very differently constructed and understood. Within policy and, to a lesser extent, the media, future workers were understood in terms of human capital – and this was common across all six countries in our sample. This discourse was strongest in England, Ireland, Denmark and Poland – and weakest in Spain and Germany.
Students mostly did not enact the prescriptions of human capital discourse. They did not position themselves as rational choice-makers seeking higher earnings, nor did they see their wider collective role as a national economic resource. Moreover, human capital discourse was critiqued by students for overpromising – offering prospects without any guarantee that they would be realised. Labour market realities were perceived, instead, in terms of an increasingly congested positional competition based on credentials. Finally, the chapter outlines ways in which both students and staff discursively reject this future worker construction. In rejecting an understanding of ‘future workers’ based on human capital principles, they draw on the concepts of vocation and Bildung to create alternative visions of the relationship between education and the world of work.
This chapter explores the frequent construction of students as ‘stressed’ in detail, examining some broad trends that held across most of the six nations in the research. The chapter first situates the discussion within the extant research. It then examines the prevalence of the construction of students as stressed across the dataset, showing that it was common in all countries apart from Poland. Following this, the chapter explores the likely reasons for this prevalence, often drawing on the explanations offered by the research participants. These include a range of immediate concerns – such as the need to juggle multiple commitments, the pressure to work harder and faster, and apprehension about moving from education into full-time work – as well as broader societal phenomena such as an increase in societal individualism and competition, and changes to social norms around disclosure of mental distress.
This chapter explores the ways in which HE students are constructed as threats and objects of criticism – with respect to the quality of education, and to society more broadly. Based on analysis of newspaper articles, policy documents and interviews with staff members and policy actors, the chapter outlines three critical constructions of students associated with academic qualities, political activism and generational disparities. Furthermore, students’ own perceptions of how they are seen by other social actors is also discussed. The chapter argues that behind the critical constructions are assumptions about an ‘ideal’ or ‘implied’ student, to which those who are criticised are seen as not conforming. It is suggested that these idealised images tend to reinforce understandings of students that are exclusionary, and which overlook structural, cultural and socio-economic factors that can have a significant impact on being a student.
This chapter draws together arguments from the previous chapters and explores various cross-cutting themes. It first considers the distinctiveness of a student identity. Implicit in most of the discussion in the book so far is an assumption that there is something distinctive about being a student, and that how students are understood has social consequences. However, the chapter draws on data from Poland to note that this distinctiveness is not necessarily played out in the same way in all contexts. The chapter then moves on to explore the extent to which dominant constructions across and within nation-states were similar, engaging with the debates about the degree of homogenisation of higher education across Europe, and the extent to which nation-states can be considered ‘coherent educational entities’. The chapter suggests that there are also other important axes of difference to consider – beyond national boundaries and type of social actors. The chapter subsequently explores the impact of constructions, maintaining that they are not merely of academic interest, but have direct and material effects, before looking to the future and considering how the book can help to inform a future research agenda.