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Blog post Part of series: Uncharted terrain: Teaching and learning in higher education for times of uncertainty

Taking a year out? The ambitious teleology of higher education for cultivating a self-aware society

Tony Rice, Verulam Sport

In the much-quoted Heraclitean aphorism, ‘the road up and down is one and the same’ (see for example Russell, 2004, p. 51), the pre-Socratic philosopher introduces a radical relativism and acuity for the interconnected nature of the web of life. There can be little doubt of a similar interconnected relationship between the teleology of higher education and the wider society within which it forms an integral part. Universities as both ‘idea’ and ‘institution’ cannot exist outside of political and social contexts; they are, indeed, microcosms of society.

In this blog, I introduce the notion of the ‘year out’ for which we can acknowledge the reality of the teleology of higher education and in so doing, encourage a more self-aware and self-responsible student who will then be capable of maintaining such traits throughout their lives. It is imperative to embrace the challenge of this post-Covid-19 era and to offer a truly innovative mode of education ensuring a value for money service. It is likewise imperative that students be equipped with the capability of truly mastering their own unique gifts, talents and skills in order to lead a purposeful self-determined life.

‘It is imperative that students be equipped with the capability of truly mastering their own unique gifts, talents and skills in order to lead a purposeful self-determined life.’

With the pressure of competition that young adults face today, it is no wonder that many with haste enrol onto degree programmes and later drop out, decide it is not worth the excessive tuition fees, change their disciplines or return to further study later in life (DfE, 2019). What I suggest is the inclusion of a year out built into the very process of education as a transition from sixth form college to first-year university study. Many post-college students in the UK already take this decision and it seems that the numbers are on the rise (Gap Year Association, 2019). This might seem radical, perhaps naïve at best, let alone logistically challenging if this is a formal mandated year out. Whether encouraging a year out is something that is even possible, the values that taking a year out promote are conducive to creating self-regulating, exploratory and reflective young adults. This year out might well be metaphorical. Not necessarily a year of volunteering in South America or a year of backpacking in South East Asia, but rather, time out in one capacity or another that allows the time and space for reflection, exploration and deliberation.

‘What I suggest is the inclusion of a year out built into the very process of education as a transition from sixth form college to first-year university study.’

Furthermore, what of the mature students who return to university after years of full-time employment on other paths in life than the conventional route of staying ‘in’ education? Anyone who has conversed or taught mature students with diverse backgrounds know the richness that they bring to the classroom (Smithers & Griffin, 2013). While there is also a literature on the challenges that they face, mature students bring not only a wealth of experience, but also varying perspectives and a quiet sensibility that others in the class fresh out of school or college can learn a great deal from as well.

Further still, what of the role that we as educators play in creating this space? We may take this chance to refocus our values to ensure that we listen more to students and their individual stories.

What drives our students? What are they passionate about? What are the barriers they recognise in front of them? How do they think and feel about smashing through them? For those who are still deliberating, we support them to explore potential paths, options and entertain a number of ideas. And we need not refer them to careers advice services straightaway. We encourage self-reflection through practices such as journaling and other modes of self-exploration not as peripheral to learning but as foundational to learning (Bashan & Holsblat, 2017). We remind students of the iterative nature of learning from experience. To those who bring life histories and narratives as mature students, we listen. And we invite those who are emerging adults to listen to them as well.

In conclusion, this real or metaphorical time out is an iterative relationship as the student develops, offering new challenges to the educators’ own predilections, pursuits and worldviews. And so, we as educators, listeners and learners can live by the Nietzschean precept that one repays a teacher badly if one remains nothing but a student.


References

Bashan, B., & Holsblat, R. (2017). Reflective journals as a research tool: The case of student teachers’ development of teamwork. Cogent Education, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/2331186X.2017.1374234

Russell, B. (2004). History of western philosophy. London: Routledge Classics.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2019, March 7). Education Secretary warns universities over dropout rates. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/education-secretary-warns-universities-over-dropout-rates

Gap Year Association. (2020). Gap year data & benefits. Retrieved from https://www.gapyearassociation.org/data-benefits.php

Smithers, A., & Griffin, A. (2013). Mature students at university: Entry, experience and outcomes, Studies in Higher Education, 11(3), 257–268. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.1986.10721163