Re-imagining 'nontraditional' student constructs in higher education : a case study of one South African University
Worldwide, a greater and more diverse student population participates in higher education now more than ever before as the literature suggests an increase in 'nontraditional' students commonly regarded as adult students, part-time students, working college students, widening participation students, new wave students, millenial students and undocumented students, as examples. Policy imperatives, such as widening participation and flexible provision, have influenced new kinds of student identities beyond the familiar and fixed student categories, of 'traditional' and 'nontraditional', conventionally in use. Problems of 'nontraditional' student identity are compounded when the language and nomenclature in higher education perpetuate only certain kinds of 'nontraditional' student constructs, denoting mainly an increased numerical presence for certain student groups while underarticulating blended student identities and corresponding educational needs for what is arguably a new and growing segment of 'nontraditional' students in higher education today. While 'nontraditional' students are widely reported in the literature as having both an increasing and prevailing presence in higher education internationally, scholarly interest in students constructed in this way appear to be relatively recent and disproportionate when compared with the literature pertaining to higher education students regarded as 'traditional'. But who are these 'nontraditional' students in higher education currently, and are their identities by definition distinct from each other? What is currently denoted by this 'nontraditionalising' nomenclature when the literature progressively regards 'nontraditional' students as the 'new majority', the 'new traditionals' and the 'new normals' in higher education presently? And how different are they from students who may still be conventionally categorised as 'traditional'? This study’s central research question led to the beginnings and continuities of 'nontraditional' students at one South African university, and probed the reasons for what comes into view as varied and uneven institutional portrayals of students historically constructed as adult learners, lifelong learners, recognition of prior learning (RPL), after-hours and part-time students. Recommendations from this study, therefore, encourage awareness and possibly a review of the use of all student nomenclature at the University towards better understanding the 'traditional-nontraditional' range of student. For higher education ecologies worldwide, this study suggests that generalisations about 'traditional' and 'nontraditional' higher education students provide a window only on two main 'types' of student participating in higher education. However, new and transitioning student constructs must also be reflected in the language of higher education presently. When this is not done, the educational identities of all students in higher education are only partially understood and their educational experiences may be compromised. Re-imagining nontraditional student constructs is recommended alongside discourses that make possible teaching and learning arrangements for all higher education students, who find themselves shaping their studenthood along an increasingly blended 'traditional'-'nontraditional' continuum in higher education presently. Finally this study puts forward that perpetuation of jaded nomenclature and misnomers for 'nontraditional' students in higher education may be an indication that the more fundamental and necessary re-imagining of the higher education curriculum for current times is not yet underway.