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Academic transitions into higher education and negotiating change

Rita Hordósy Tom Clark Dan Vickers

Theorising student transition

Transition is replete within the human world. That is as much to say that it is impossible to entirely ‘stand still’. From one day to the next, one place to another, we are always in the process of transit from something to somewhere; always navigating movement from one conceptual place to next.

If transitions are ubiquitous within the human world, then it is unsurprising to find them at the heart of the student experience. Indeed, Higher Education takes a prominent position on this period of time in both political rhetoric and lived experience alike – simultaneously a destination from somewhere and a journey toward something else: both a means to an end and the end in itself.

However, this pivot between positions on the life course belies the landscapes of transition that are entrenched within the macro level transitions into and out of Higher Education. A variety of meso-level transitions exist within the machinations of university administrative structures and the seasons of university life. These middle-range transitions, however, are themselves littered with other micro level transitions that, whilst not always necessary, support and constitute the whole endeavour. Look beneath the transitory stage of ‘student’ and it is possible to discover a multi-layered fabric of contingent transitions, which are themselves made up of an ever more specific, but no less convergent, nexus of smaller transitions. Whilst some of these might be essential, others are tangential, some are statutory, and many are voluntary: the whole is almost certainly greater than the sum of its parts.

The rise of the ‘student experience’ and the multiplicity of transition

to date, there has been little general interest in the nature of transitions within higher education, nor has there has been much research that has attempted to understand how students actually understand and experience post 2012 university life in the context of ‘full tuition fees’

In the context of the post 2012 tuition fee regime, and driven by the growth of a sector-wide business model that increasingly emphasises student recruitment, retention, and employability, Higher Education rhetoric has seen an increasing emphasis on what is termed as the ‘student experience’. This catch-all heading is increasingly used by universities and various commentators to cover all those university-related support mechanisms and developmental activities that students might participate with – either as a part of their chosen course and in addition to it. However, to date, there has been little general interest in the nature of transitions within higher education, nor has there has been much research that has attempted to understand how students actually understand and experience post 2012 university life in the context of ‘full tuition fees’. By following a cohort of undergraduate entrants at the University of Sheffield throughout their studies, the Sheffield Student 2013 longitudinal research project has been designed to bring these two fields together in order to better understand the lived experience of contemporary student life.

Drawing on the student record data and repeated interviews with 40 students, we presented a paper at the BERA 2015 conference, specifically looking at the multiplicity of transitions that students make whilst at university. Indeed, rather seeing university as just a general point of transition within the life-course, we explore the constant changes that contribute to the notion of ‘becoming’ a university student. Students don’t only have to get grips with the university level teaching and learning, they also have to negotiate multiple other aspects of transition during their university years – and they experience these aspects in a variety of ways. The novelties derive from ‘going’ to university, as opposed to ‘coming’ here: in the first year accounts university appears as a complex and distant concept that the individual just started to unpack: only a few students suggest they have already ‘arrived’. However, this change in the physical and metaphorical space relating to the concept of university is mostly interpreted as a natural next step – a big or a small, dependent on how successful students perceive their own transitions. In this context it seems that the definitions and rules of a previously supportive, small and well-known institutional and social context are replaced by a distant, complex set of unknowns. This then is perceived either as the lack of support provision or normalised as the necessity of becoming ‘an independent learner’.


Due to the diversity of student lives – where they are coming from and where they are going to – transitions can take many different shapes, forms and timings: not all are necessary or essential, and not all are positive from our institutional point of view. Therefore, we are beginning to take the view that models of university-led assimilation, accommodation, or alignment may not be suitable in themselves to understand – and better support – the diversity of  student transitions that encompass the ‘student experience’, especially in the context of widening participation and higher student numbers. Indeed, the point of the 2013 Sheffield Student 2013 project is to begin to map these points of transition, describe what form they might take and where they occur, and explore how we can develop the tools necessary for them to navigate the transitions that students want to make.