January 2011

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Learning from and understanding your students – watch out for generation Y

Derfel Owen - Development Officer (Students and Enhancement), QAA

Big changes are about to take place in UK higher education in response to the government's plans to reform higher education funding, shifting the cost from government grants to student fees. Universities and agencies like QAA are thinking very seriously about how this will affect our relationship with students.

There is another challenge emerging though that I believe will have an equally profound effect on higher education, as well as providing great opportunities, and that is the arrival of Generation Y.

Generation Y is that generation of young people born throughout the 1990s and in the first few years of the new millennium. Their attitudes and worldview have, I believe, been shaped by two things:

  1. A sustained and unbroken fifteen year period of economic growth. From September 1992 to 2007, the UK and global economy grew steadily, year on year. Money and jobs were more readily available than they had been for decades and government policies were able to support ongoing expansion and access to higher education.
  2. The internet revolution. Technology has advanced apace and the arrival of the internet in people's homes and classrooms and its progression to laptops, palmtops and mobile phones has revolutionised the way information is accessed and shared.

These may seem like facts of life when we consider the effect they have had on our day to day lives, but for those young people who grew up during this period, they have shaped not just their attitudes but the way they see the world around them.

The economic environment has made them less fearful of change, confident about their prospects and the range of possibilities and opportunities available to them, expectant that they will have easy and unfettered access to material goods. The internet revolution has empowered and informed them in ways unimaginable fifteen years ago.

The ease with which facts and information can be accessed, checked and challenged by searching on Google or Wikipedia; the questions and challenges that can be posed instantly on Twitter or Facebook and answered by possibly hundreds or thousands of interlocutors; or the ease and rapidity with which the internet and organisations are able to learn from and respond to their users are not a phenomenon for this generation but facts of life, no more surprising than switching on an electric kettle or using a lawn mower would have been to earlier generations.

These are not challenges that should be added to the post-Browne consumer revolution, they are defining features that will be perpetuated by it. UK higher education has not achieved its success and international recognition by resting on its laurels. I am confident that HE providers will respond and adapt, and here are some ways in which I see them needing to do so:

  • Controlling messages and information is no longer possible. For Generation Y, everyone is an expert and everyone has the right to share their views and can do so with ease. The best way to manage the flow of information from students is to make sure that they have a good academic experience.
  • Good decision making is not prolonged decision making. Previous generations have created and cultivated decision making structures that are deliberative and thorough. Generation Y students will not have the patience of their predecessors; they will find ways of making their voices heard and will expect swift changes.
  • Students are experts too. Students are the only ones who know what it is like to be a student. Universities should tap into this expertise, energy and passion. Because technology will continue to evolve at a mind-boggling pace and student attitudes and trends will continue to change it is important to make sure that Generation Y's expertise is used to shape and deliver change.

Generalitat de Catalunya

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