on March 25, 2013 by Irena Smith in Uncategorized, Comments (1)

Focus Group

Hello everyone! I hope the end of term is treating you all well – or as well as can be expected. Okay, I hope you’re not all dissolving into stressed-out puddles of goo. I think that’s a realistic wish.

With the end of term, so to does my project come to a close. I really hope you’ve all enjoyed reading my blog! I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it, and the opportunity it’s given me to reflect more deeply on my time and educational experience here in Finland. As a wrap-up to my project, I conducted a “focus group” with some Finnish and international students, to talk to them about their perceptions about higher education. It was a really engaged and interesting conversation, and for this final post, I’d like to try to relay some of the most intriguing results of our chat.

To begin with, I’ve attached a separate document with my research questions – the questions that loosely guided our focus group conversation. Of course, our conversation frequently deviated from these questions, but they should give you a basic idea of what I was after.

The members of my focus group were from Germany, Northern Ireland, Greece, Slovakia, Finland (countries where University education is free, or less than 200 Euros/year), England, America and Australia (where University fees are significant – more than USD$5000/year) and France (where there is free public education, but a significant number of people, including the respondent in my focus group, enroll in the very expensive private schools). As I’ll explain later, I did notice some trends dividing the groups of students, which, for ease and clarity, I’ll describe as students with free education and students who pay for education. There were also many issues on which we all agreed, and still others where the divisions weren’t based on financial contributions, but were more based on the character of the respondent.

We began our conversation going over some of the basic stereotypes about students in everyone’s respective countries. The obvious thing came up first – students party. But after getting past that international stereotype, we confronted our first divergence in opinion. Amongst the students with free education, a common stereotype is that students are lazy. The perception is that they are staying in school and dragging out their degrees so they can continue to get money from the government and forego getting a “real job.” Students who pay, alternately, seemed to agree that a more common stereotype, especially once students have passed the carefree and drunken first year, is that students are stressed out, devoid of free time, and put unbelievable hours into their school work. Could it be that having to pay for your education motivates students to work harder? Or do students with free education work just as hard, but the laziness stereotype overrides their efforts? Hmm…

The second major division arose when we discussed young people who choose not to go to University. Particularly amongst students who pay, people reported increasing numbers of young people going for vocational training. The argument for vocational training in these countries is basically what I expected – why would you spend so much time and money in University, when you can get a vocational degree and be assured a better paying job? Interestingly, amongst the students with free education, many said that you’re not considered for any kind of “good job” without at least a bachelors degree, even in the trades. So many students choose to take a trade, and pursue a bachelors degree as well. What I concluded from this portion of our conversation is that improved access to education sets a new standard when it comes to job hiring. It’s interesting to speculate whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Personally, I think people can only benefit from a few years of University education, but I’m guessing there are some economists who would disagree.

This led to an interesting discussion about the value of a University degree, and why people chose their degree paths. Was it about acquiring hard skills – the practical skills you will use in your future career? Or was it about the soft skills – things like critical thinking and time management? In this respect, the diverging opinions were not based on financial contributions to education, but rather on the type of degree being pursued. Somewhat predictably, those pursuing degrees in business and marketing or public administration valued the hard skills, and chose their degree so that they could get a job. Those taking degrees in history or philosophy, alternately, valued the soft skills, and chose their degrees out of interest. This discussion came complete with jokes about well-educated fry cooks and soulless, money-grubbing business students. It seems some stereotypes are international, and that attitudes about the value and purpose of higher education pervade economics and have more to do with the nature of the person.

After this, we moved to some more broad, philosophical discussions about higher education and its role in society. When I asked whether “your education makes you privileged,” overwhelmingly the response was no (again, some of the answers to this question may have had more to do with the character or perspective of the student than with the “reality,” if I can be so presumptuous as to use such a term). I meant this in the economic sense – personally, I feel very privileged to be able to afford a University education in Canada. However, in countries where education is free, this isn’t an issue, and even in the UK and Australia, if people live below a certain income bracket government help is significant and student loans do not have to be paid back.

A few of the students with free education came up with a very interesting response to this question. They said that where they do not feel privileged in a class sense, they feel intellectually privileged to be able to attend University. This stems from the fact that, in many of these countries, people are streamed into university-track or vocational-track high schools. After pursuing this answer more deeply, it seems that there is a definite sense that some students simply cannot “handle” university-level learning, and they felt privileged to be amongst the chosen that can. I found it interesting that they labeled this as a privilege, and not the result of their own hard work and studying.

A second interesting conversation centered on what students contribute to society. There were some subtle divisions between the students who pay, who agreed that they’re contributing to society simply bettering themselves through education, and students with free education, who argued that, as most people get a University education, they certainly weren’t contributing anything “special.” Rather, these students focused on what they contributed as volunteers, or through internships, and planned to contribute to society through their careers once they had graduated. Interestingly, many respondents also spoke to the fact that students contribute culturally to a society, by organizing events and bringing a youthful spirit to the cities where they study. Some respondents, including those from Finland and Slovakia, took their response one step further and in fact argued that they were burdens on society, and that they would begin contributing when they got good jobs and started paying taxes.

How significant is the division in these answers, and should we understand the division as being directly tied to financial contributions from students? Because students who pay take personal ownership of their education, do they feel that they are personally contributing more to society? Do students with free education feel that they are not contributing because higher education is the norm, or because of the societal perception that they are “leeching” from the government? Should they feel like they are contributing more, simply by becoming better thinkers and learners?

This focus group brought up lots of interesting questions and conclusions for me. It seems there are some differences in attitudes towards higher education between students who pay and students with free education. But the bigger question is – how significant are these differences? Do they affect the quality of education delivered, or the abilities of the students who graduate? Are they indicative of an epistemologically different understanding of education, or are they just surface differences? We were able to agree on lots of points, regardless of our country of origin, indicating that there are some internationally common experiences that come along with being a university student. Further, there was no obviously “better” or “healthier” attitude towards education from any group of students, suggesting that there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to go about higher education. Personally, I think the issue of access is huge, and I like the fact that access to education is heightened in countries where university is free. However, I can also see a strong argument in the fact that students who pay appeared more personally invested in their education, and more motivated to do well.

I’ll conclude my summary of the discussion here, thought I have lots of points I didn’t get into. If there’s one topic that you’re particularly interested in, please ask, and I’ll try to expand on it. Also, I’ll request that you send personally send me any comments or responses by email, to irs502@mail.usask.ca. Unfortunately, this blog page inundates my email with spam, and I’ve taken to deleting messages from it en-masse.

It’s been a great experience communicating with you from afar, fellow students! If there’s any follow up questions you have from this blog as a whole, please send those to me as well, and I’ll try to put up one last post answering them all. Good luck in exams, congratulations to those of you convocating, and to the rest, I hope to see you in the fall!

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