Maureen Burke

  • Different students, different needs, different times: a re-theorisation of tertiary transition

    Maureen Burke, Soheil Ahmed and Malcolm MacKenzie, The University of Queensland, Australia

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: Supporting learners, managing change and innovation, institutional strategies

    Trow’s (1974) prediction about the massive shift from elite to mass education has been found to be largely correct. However, the realities, pre-eminently in the form of the postmodern challenges of diversity and the consequent demand for inclusivity, that now face us are far more complex than anyone could have imagined.

    What does the notion of transition mean in this context? How can we re-theorise it to reflect our existing and emerging realities? What discursive challenges are imminent in such a project?

    Historically, the term transition has applied to the rites of passage of a specific group of students, those moving from secondary to post secondary, or tertiary learning institutions. A re-theorised transition, we argue, will have to come to terms with the fact that there are many transitions, not one.

    However, this narrow conceptualisation excludes other — and we would argue, equally valid— forms of transition that students undergo, for instance, students moving from traditional modes of learning to problem based learning, or digitised, on-line forms of learning or from graduate to post graduate studies.

    Although many designated groups (such as mature age students, overseas students, single parents, differently-abled students) also undergo transitions, their transitions are often viewed in terms of special circumstances, or more disturbingly as a deviation from the norm.

    Tinto’s (1987) and Viney’s (1980) theoretical explorations into transition portray it as a slipzone between an initial and a final state in a student’s journey through the university system. But rather than being an existential position, as it were, transition is also a discursive transformation. This is the broader conceptualisation we propose in which students negotiate a number of new discourses — such as their discipline, their academic endeavour, and their role identity — simultaneously.

    The conventional practice of dealing with students’ problems in a predominantly post hoc fashion itself suggests that universities conceptualise transition poorly, if at all.

    In order to be meaningful, transition has to account on the one hand for difference, and on the other, it has to reposition itself more strategically within the greater discourse of university education.

    The transition process is characterised by responses to the physical, psychological and social environment encountered by individuals (Huon & Sankey, 2000). Accordingly, we need to recognise that individuals differ in their ability to respond, particularly during the first year of any new university experience. The much vaunted goal of inclusivity, cannot be achieved without ‘normalising’ this difference.

    The very notion of transition itself has to undergo the necessary conceptual transformation. Transition occurs not only for one group of students, but for all students entering the university system, albeit differently; and it occurs continuously throughout the term of the learning process.

    As a corollary to reconceptualising transition we must reconceptualise the role of student support services, which can no longer remain ancillary to higher education. If transition occurs continuously, is it not reasonable to suggest that these services become an integral part of the entire learning process? Only then can we ourselves move from the margins to the centre of the discourse.


    • Huon Gail & Sankey Melissa, (2000), The transition to University Understanding Differences in Success, Paper presented at The Fourth pacific Rim - First Year in Higher Education Conference Queensland University of Technology. Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 5-7 July 2000.
    • Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
    • Trow, Martin (1974), Problems in the Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education, OECD, Paris.
    • Viney, Linda L. (1980), Transitions, Cassell: NSW, Australia.