When I heard about the Foundation Degree, I had been with my employer for 16 years. It seemed that this Foundation Degree could provide me with something that would enable me to use the information and experience I had gained over 16 years, and give me the confidence that I lacked. So, five years ago, I found myself sitting in a room at Abingdon and Witney College with 23 other ladies, filling in various forms and meeting our tutors for the first time.
I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. The first shock was finding out that the course was considered a full-time course. All of us on the course were working full-time, so it was a relief to find that the College had scheduled our classes so that we could attend on just one day a week from 2.00 pm, finishing about 8.30 in the evening. For me, this meant I only needed to be absent from work for a few hours a week. The second shock was discovering just how much work was involved. I’m afraid to say that my social life almost disappeared for a while, at least until I got myself organised.
The third shock was just how strict our tutors were, but this was a good thing for me. I hadn’t done any studying or academic writing for a very long time, since leaving school in the 1970s. The tutors insisted that we presented our work in a particular way, using a standard typeface and spacing, with numbered pages, correctly annotated referencing, a contents page, and so on, and that our work was spirally bound, instilled in me a good working practice which stood me in good stead not only for the Foundation Degree but also for the BA at Oxford Brookes University.
Whilst our tutors were strict, they were also extremely helpful. They were always so patient, helping us to understand what sometimes seemed to be very difficult subjects. At times, they went beyond the call of duty. I remember really struggling with an assignment on culture, and spending an evening in the library with a tutor who patiently worked through my ideas and notes with me and set me on the right road to writing my assignment. Our tutors made our classes fun too. They didn’t just provide us with information, they demonstrated it. Many theories were explained by getting us to work in groups carrying out sometimes unusual tasks: building models with directions from someone who cannot speak out loud, or following directions when you are blindfolded — these all made lessons so much fun and interesting.
There were times though when the going was hard. Times when I wanted to leave the course, and times when I just cried because I was so tired. Team assignments where one team member did not pull her weight were difficult and frustrating. I had problems getting hold of the books I needed. The library holding at Abingdon and Witney College were really not adequate for HE students and, even if a book was available at Oxford Brookes, there were usually only one or two copies available, the time need to collect and return it was time I could ill afford when I had a full-time job.
However, as the Foundation Degree course progressed, I began to see how relevant the subjects we were studying were to my job. I began to see things in my workplace in a different way. I realised how different jobs and tasks within the workplace supported and linked to each other and how necessary it was to work more efficiently and easily with other people. I found myself having more confidence and a growing ability to express my ideas.
So having completed the Foundation Degree, what made me want to continue to the top up BA course? I had known what I wanted to do when I left school and that hadn’t included going to university. However, as I got older, I began to regret. When I did realise that I would have liked to have gone to university, it just wasn’t possible. Here I was, being offered that chance. So why not do it? I had enjoyed the Foundation Degree and it seemed an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
Studying for the BA was very different though. Whilst two compulsory modules meant that I met up with the other four mature students who also went on to do the BA, I found myself in all my other classes and tutorials with 20 and 21 year olds. In fact I found this was probably my biggest anxiety about the BA course. I need not have worried. Once they had got over the shock of having me in their class, they were just brilliant and I like to think that they gained as much from me as I did from them.
I actually found the work at Oxford Brookes to be easier than the Foundation degree course. I think I found it easier because I didn’t have to worry about how to write an assignment. I had been well trained by my Foundation Degree tutors. I knew how to construct an essay, how to carry out a case study, make a presentation, write a literature review. I knew better too than to turn up at class without having done the key reading and sometimes secondary reading as well, and having some notes and questions ready.
I didn’t have to study any subjects I didn’t want to. Apart from the two compulsory modules I was able to choose those subjects that interested me the most. I took, for example, courses in gender and sexuality, media audiences, and an incredibly interesting course entitled Subject to Culture which required me to investigate how culture affected me. Finally, my dissertation centred on the experiences of Chinese students studying at a British university. I am really pleased that some of its recommendations have been acted upon and new induction procedures for international students have been introduced at the college where I work.
Finally, how has this affected me, my job and my employer? I said at the start that I was thinking about looking for a new job — and I have a new job. Within a few days of getting my BA results, my boss offered me a newly created position. I am now College Academic Registrar. Instead of being asked to complete forms, tick boxes, photocopy lecture notes, book meeting rooms, I find myself being asked for advice and guidance on a variety of matters — academic discipline, special exam arrangements and so on. I have written several reports and case studies which have been presented to the College Governing Body and their recommendations have been accepted. I can’t stress how much my life has changed since completing the Foundation and the BA degree course. I really enjoy being at work, and feel that I am contributing something worthwhile.
This article is based on a talk given at the Associate College Partnership staff development day: Enhancing the student experience through working in partnership, Oxford Brookes University, 14 January 2011