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University without VCE

By Jim Batt

Yes it is possible, although not easy, to get into university without completing (or even starting) VCE. I have spent only a very insignificant amount of my time in high school but still wished to further my education at a university level. I began by undertaking the FAST course (Foundation Access Studies) at Ballarat University. This course is aimed at mature age students who have completed secondary education but have been out of the education system for some time before desiring to undertake tertiary study. The course is designed to prepare these students with the basic skills needed to handle university. The subjects which were taught were ones such as maths, computer skills, research and layout of work, and a first year university English subject – Language and Literacy.

After completing this course, which was a single semester, and achieving good marks in most subjects I could have continued on at Ballarat University. My main aim, however, was to get into a university in Melbourne. So at the start of last year I submitted a standard VTAC application at Latrobe University as well as applying at the University of Melbourne through their Target Access Program. T.A.P. is an acceptance procedure aimed at those areas of the community which are under represented at the university, such as Koori people, women in engineering, rurally isolated students and the category under which I applied – disadvantaged by my social or economic background. This was such a vague category that I was sure I would be covered in one way or another. Included with my applications was an example of my work during the FAST course, copy of a Language & Literacy essay for which I had received a high distinction, and a letter explaining my background and reasons for wishing to enter into tertiary study. I was subsequently offered a place by both Latrobe and Melbourne Universities, and chose to enroll in a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne Uni.

I have now completed my first year of this course and it has been a very rewarding experience. The subjects are taught in such a way that the information is alive and meaningful. The fact that the students are there on a voluntary basis and the tutors have a strong interest in their subject creates a much more positive atmosphere to study in. While the work in my course has been challenging and at times overwhelming I have at no time felt that I was incapable of completing it, nor do I feel that I have been disadvantaged by my previous education. My marks have been good, I scored 90% in two of my subjects last year – Linguistics and Multimedia Authoring, and was awarded the Hastie Exhibition prize for coming equal first in first year Philosophy.

This shows that VCE is not necessary to do well at university. My education has not been at all formal or structured. My parents did not follow a strict curriculum and I received no formal lessons, instead they provided the resources for me to follow my own interests and guided my leaming in a more natural fashion. Prior to the FAST course my only experience of the education system was a brief attempt at year 10. I stayed only for one term, that was enough to show me how much I disliked the manner and environment in which schools were run. I would like to thank my parents for their wise decision in being different and choosing home education instead of packing me off to school. I am also extremely grateful for all the support my friends and family have given me in my efforts to get into university, without it I would not be here now. Thanks.

Below is a copy of the essay which I wrote during the FAST course and sent in with my university application. It explains more of my educational background for those who are interested.

To what extent my learning, language and literacy has been enhanced or inhibited by social, cultural and power relationships.
Education is not gulping down books, … but is transformational of the relationships between students, teacher, school and society.” (Freire & Shor, 1987).

It is my opinion that our lives are enormously effected by the institutions within which we have been educated, the social and cultural relationships that surround them and the power which this learning can give us. I intend to write about the effect of educational institutions on my learning and obtaining of literacies. I will try to indicate how these radically different learning environments have affected me and my relationships with the rest of the world.

I feel that my parents’ decision to keep me out of the education system and teach me themselves has had an enormous effect on my language, literacy, and to a greater degree, my learning. Their decision was based on the knowledge and experience they had of the school system, its philosophy and method in regard to the teaching of literacies.
My early education therefore was not formal at all, my parents believing that I would learn when I had the desire or need for that new literacy, then providing the resources needed. The effect of this was that my learning has been very broadly based, due to the fact that I have mostly followed my own interests, unhindered by any possible restrictions placed by what was expected or offered within formal education. Gee distinguishes between two ways of obtaining discourses.

“Acquisition is a process of acquiring something subconsciously by exposure to models and a process of trial and error, without a process of formal teaching. … Learning is a process that involves conscious knowledge gained through teaching, though not necessarily from someone officially designated a teacher.” (Gee, 1987).

In my experience this can also be applied to literacy, most of my early literacies being acquired rather than learnt. When I began formal education the reverse became true. One of the negative aspects of the home education method was that my mathematical skills were neglected for a long time, until I found the need to become more proficient. Also, I have little documentation of my learning which causes many problems when applying for study at educational institutions which use a gatekeeping enrolment process, requiring credentials of former literacies and achievements before allowing one to commence study. This lack of ‘proof’ has also led me to have some doubt in my abilities.
… [W]hat children learn is learned as part of the social process of doing things with other human beings.” ( Emmitt & Pollock, 1991). Most of the literacies I have learnt have come from the adults in my environment, such as parents and friends, and this has affected the way my social skills have developed. When I was younger I could communicate and relate with older people more readily than was expected for one of my age. I had begun to learn the language of adults, not only the vocabulary but the overall style of communication as well. This was different from other young people who would mostly socialise only with others of their own age, treating adults almost as the enemy. I am an extensive reader, both in fiction and non-fiction, and this comes in part from my background of self-developed learning, where I found most of my information in written texts. Nor did my family own a television, reading being one of the main forms of entertainment in our household. This has to a large degree enhanced my language. My vocabulary is large and I have few difficulties in interpreting the different styles of the English language.

Another effect of home education on my social life was that I did not have the constant contact with other children my age that most people have during their school years. I had some friends my own age, whom I had met at home education camps (gatherings of other families who shared my parents’ philosophy), but these friends were scattered across the state and I would have little regular contact with them. This was exaggerated by the slight degree of rural isolation in which my family lives, a small farming community 30-40 minutes’ drive from the nearest town.

The fact that I have been taught at home has lowered my status in some situations, other people concluding that because I have not been to school I must therefore have inferior understanding and abilities. This prejudice becomes very annoying and has caused me to have some occasional difficulties with the power plays of other people, who believed themselves to be more literate than me and therefore of greater status.

The next big event in terms of my learning was when I began formal studies for the first time. I enrolled at the Distance Education Centre, beginning secondary study at year 10 level. I found the formal learning hard to adjust to, especially managing the large amounts of study the course required while still being at home. This study at home was very difficult, it required strong discipline not to procrastinate and set aside time specific to study. The course was also very disorganised. I would often write an essay, only to find that I had been confused by the presentation of the curriculum, and had written it on the wrong topic. The teachers comments on returned work would often be very brief and of little value to me, one teacher responding with little other than the words “Well Done” or “Well Done As Usual”. I found that the responsibilities and stress of the correspondence course were too great and decided to try continuing my studies at the local Secondary College.

It was quite a culture shock when I began at this school, my initial enculturation being largely family based with little contact with large institutions. Following Gee’s usage of the term Discourse to mean “[A] socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or social network’.” (Gee, 1987).

I feel that the main skill that I learnt there was how to adapt to and learn the Discourse of classroom and schoolyard behaviour, something I had no previous experience of. I had, at the same time, joined the local Venturer unit, and while I had not yet made many friends because I only saw the other people in the unit once a week, once I started school I became firm friends with most of them. These friendships made my introduction to school yard life much easier as I joined their group straight away, instead of having to go through the trauma of being the odd one out and having to begin my time there alone. The first lessons I learnt, with great rapidity, where ones of social behaviour. I found the entire school yard sociocultural situation to be highly amazing and, to me, ridiculous. But as a matter of survival I had to learn to avoid all the taboos and social blunders or lose the little confidence and status I had. My new friends were a great help and I soon learnt to quickly respond to any teasing or insults I received and became literate in the verbal power games that were played out for social status.

“At a time when literacy is increasingly thought of as participation in social practices … it becomes important to recognise what practices and values students may bring to school.” (Emmitt & Pollock, 1991).

My performance in class was fairly ‘average’ although my basic thinking skills appeared to be, to my mind, equal to or above that of most of the other students. It was my lack of knowledge of the classroom Discourse that was inhibiting my performance. However, the learning environment was far from perfect, most of the other students had little desire to learn and would disrupt the class, this made it hard for those students who wanted to learn as the teachers spent a majority of their time keeping the class under control.

The amount of prejudice, racial, sexual, etc. that was present, both in the students and the teachers, came as a surprise. It was in no way directed at me but it became apparent in school yard jokes, insults, and the overall behaviour of the students. I remember finding this attitude amazing; that they could have so little respect for other rights. This prejudice, however, was not as apparent once the students left the school. They would adopt their own individual views once they were out of their peers’ sphere of influence, once again it was linked to the relationships of power, acceptance and status in the school.

I found that this environment was not conductive to the learning of literacies at all, the social patterns of the students reflecting, to some degree, the teaching and atmosphere of the classroom. I left at the end of the term and did not begin V.C.E., believing that my education could be enhanced further in other ways. I was also unwilling to continue spending the majority of my time acting in the Discourse of secondary study.

I was then employed in the work force on a part time basis for the next few years while pursuing my personal interests. Then, after having some contact with university and university students, I made the decision to attempt entry into one of these institutions and to begin tertiary study. This partly stemmed from a desire for knowledge, however I also wished to participate in some of the social aspects of university life. I experienced many difficulties, of a gatekeeping nature, with commencing a degree at university. Due to the fact I had not been adequately credentialled I had no ‘proof” of my education with which they could assess my aptitude and suitability for entry. During the course of my investigation into alternative access to university I became informed of a bridging program called the F.A.S.T. course, in which I enrolled.

I have found the experience of tertiary study to be vastly different to the other formal study I undertook. Among the students there is very little of the power relationships and social intolerance which I found hard to adjust to in high school. Most students are regarded as having the same social status as each other, regardless of their background. They have reduced the way their previous study and environment constructed them and adopted the new Discourse. This more positive attitude, I believe, comes about because all the students are present at the university by choice, most studying a subject they have some interest in – something which greatly encourages learning. The accepting outlook and positive feedback of other students has helped to reinforce confidence in my learning abilities and educational background, a socially lenient environment easing my adaptation to this Discourse.

Another difference that came to my attention, regarding the learning process at university, is that there is little conflict between the teacher and the student. This is greatly different to high school where the student-teacher relationship is often antagonistic, not at all conductive to learning. This antagonism may partly be caused by the teachers’ more authoritarian role at school, they enforce class attendance and work requirements, and this often causes feelings of rebellion. The situation at university is completely removed from this, the teachers are often still students themselves and are not required to function in the more disciplinary roles. These overall attitudes and teaching methods, I found, were a lot more like my home education learning. This has made me more comfortable and facilitated my performance in class and understanding of the literacies being taught.

” Critical education has to integrate the students and the teachers into a mutual creation and recreation of knowledge.” (Freire & Shor, 1987). Universities are not only places of learning but also areas where research and other forms of knowledge production are undertaken. This adds a feeling of importance to one’s learning in such an environment, the curriculum does not feel like meaningless parcels of knowledge to be learned by rote. The literacies being obtained are not to be used merely as a method to open the doors to university as in V.C.E., they have more meaning and influence on the world. This increases the students’ sense of useful achievement. I had found that this was not the case in high school, as Shor emphasises.

“The students are not included in the search, in the activity of rigor. They are told the answers to memorize. Knowledge is handed to them like a corpse of information – a dead ‘body of knowledge’- not a living connection to their reality.” (Freire & Shor, 1987).

During my time at university, while undertaking the F.A.S.T. course, my language has been enhanced and expanded. I have been introduced to the academic writing style and learnt some of the literacies necessary to survive study at tertiary level. These academic literacies were hard to gain an understanding of at first. With practice and the aid of those around me, however, I feel that I have become more adept at their use.

Looking at my educational background it becomes clear that the environment in which one learns and acquires literacies can, and does, have a huge effect upon the development of language, literacy and the power and status these skills infer. I have discussed my own upbringing, with its variety of learning experiences, and the difficulties I have encountered dealing with the bureaucracy of formal education. This illustrates the effects institutions and other students have had on my learning.
Emmitt, M., & Pollock, J. (1991) Language and learning. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Freire, P. (1974). Education for critical consciousness. London: Sheed and Ward.
Freire, P., & Shor, I. (I 987). A pedagogy for liberation. Houndmills: Macrrtdlan Education.
Gee, J. (1987). What is literacy? In P. Shannon (Ed.) Becoming political: Reading and writing in the politics of literacy education (pp 21 – 28). Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books.
Gee, J. (1992). The social mind. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Mchoul, A., & Grace, W. (1993). A foucalt primer. Melbourne University Press: Carlton.
Windisch, U. (1990). Speech and reasoning in everyday life. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

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