Nomads in contested landscapes: reframing student engagement and nontraditionality in higher education
Trowler, Vicki Brenda Agnes
The findings of this study challenge essentialised conceptions of “the student” as a young national, entering higher education directly from school with appropriate school-leaving qualifications, to devote themselves entirely to their studies, undistracted by caring responsibilities or work commitments, unconstrained by disabilities, conforming to an unproblematised binary conception of gender which informs an appropriate choice of study programme, participating in stereotypical student extramural pursuits along the way. The study tracked 23 students from 7 universities who volunteered themselves as ‘non-traditional’ in their own study contexts over the course of a calendar year. Drawing on concepts of ‘diaspora space’, ‘nomadism’, dis/identification and mis/recognition, this study maps out these students’ perceptions of the different aspects of their engagement as these changed over time as well as their self-conceptions and their descriptions of their ‘imagined communities’. The importance of relationships of different kinds (with other people, with their studies, and with their universities and other structures) in their decisions about persistence is noted. Student Engagement (SE) has been widely accepted as contributing positively to the student experience, student success and outcomes, including persistence / retention. ‘Non-traditional’ students, while having the potential to benefit most from SE, are often reported as feeling unengaged or alienated, and constitute ‘at risk’ groups in terms of persistence / retention. This study has established that the construct ‘non-traditional student’ can be considered a ‘chaotic conception’, since students bearing that label may have nothing in common beyond not conforming to ‘traditional’ criteria. Students may consider themselves ‘non-traditional’ in their particular study contexts for many reasons, often presenting with more than one factor from a checklist of what is not traditional in that context. The study also found reported mismatches between resources and services offered by universities for defined groups of ‘non-traditional’ students, and the support sought by students in this study. These mismatches hinge on factors such as fear of stigma, disparities between how target groups are defined and how students self-identify, opacity of systems and processes and perceived differences in priority.