Access to Higher Education, Mature learners, Philosophy, Student Experience, Student Stories, Widening Participation

Go Higher and Beyond, by Rhys Jones (Go Higher 2016/2017)

Dear potential adult learners and Go Higher alumni,

It’s my pleasure to write about my experiences for the Go Higher blog, having recently completed my undergraduate degree in philosophy with first-class honours at the University of Liverpool.

I found out about Go Higher quite accidentally, after returning from working in Australia seven years ago. Although I had a skilled job in the electronics industry there, I couldn’t get a work visa due to my lack of academic qualifications. It had long annoyed me that while I loved learning, and had even worked in the education sector, I’d still never managed to complete a degree, something that so many others seemed to manage without too much trouble.

I fell out of education after becoming extremely demotivated at my Comprehensive school in suburban Liverpool. Having flown through my GCSEs, I lost interest at A-Level and performed poorly. I nevertheless went to Salford University when I was eighteen, but my motivation there was still lacking, so I dropped out and got a job in the music industry, which I loved. I then went on to engineer and produce records, until becoming a parent at age twenty-four, when my priorities changed. Acceptance onto Go Higher allowed me to draw a line under my past educational experiences and start afresh.

Being an autodidact meant that I already had a range of skills across music, engineering and IT, so it seemed like the right time to finally add a degree – part of the problem was that 3-4 years always seemed like too big a commitment, but the commitment itself was something that I wanted to prove to myself that I could manage. Go Higher was the perfect way to ease in, and find out whether I was up to the task.

My initial idea was to study science or engineering, but I knew that I had broader interests, and my heart was really in the arts. I wanted to improve my writing alongside my understanding of the world, and to go in a new direction in my career, so the humanities seemed to make the most sense. I worked full-time during Go Higher, with Wednesdays off for classes, alongside parenting and study at weekends. This was challenging, and exhausting, but something I found fulfilling.

Go Higher really was an inspiration, and undoubtedly the most enjoyable part of my time at university. Learning alongside other mature students with families and unique life experiences was the perfect re-introduction to education. The course itself was absolutely brilliant – broad yet also deep, and perfectly crafted by the academics behind it. The slightly freer structure of Go Higher compared to A-Levels means that the lecturers are able to construct modules that touch on multiple disciplines of the arts at the same time. Studying the history of the Enlightenment gave a valuable grounding in a crucial phase of our contemporary culture’s philosophical development. Analysing English literature and poetry provided an illuminating insight into the writer’s craft – my mind is still well-blown by close-reading some of the incredible short-stories provided by the wise and recondite Dr. James Bainbridge. The psychology module taught me crucial academic skills while educating me about an important part of Liverpool’s recent past, and gave me the chance to express my love for design. The refresher course on mathematics allowed me to help others in the class to achieve their full potential. All the set assignments are interesting while being sufficiently challenging, allowing exploration of one’s particular interests in a topic while allowing expression of one’s unique insight, with detailed feedback readily provided by the tutors, that allows one to improve.

A great benefit of the access course at Liverpool is that students are on-campus, around Abercromby Square, using all of the academic resources and facilities that are available to the rest of the student population. This was a boon when I began my degree proper, as I already understood the online Virtual Learning Environment, how to access library resources, and how to properly reference in the academic styles required. The University swimming pool is also my favourite in the city, and a great place to cogitate upon what one is learning while doing refreshing lengths at lunchtime.

I would advise potential students to go for it, wholeheartedly, and to be open to both what you will learn, and how you will be changed by the process. Even in a year, one’s eyes can be opened to the potential offered by the variety of subjects covered on the course. My initial aim upon starting Go Higher was to go on to study law, but having enjoyed Dr. Claire Jones’ philosophy module and realising that philosophy could be a key to unlocking all my interests, I decided to study for a degree in it. Completing Go Higher with a distinction (74%) meant that I had a pick of courses, but I knew that I wanted to stay at Liverpool. What sealed it for me was someone asking Claire “what is philosophy actually good for?” to which she responded, simply: “it teaches you how to think”. I knew my thinking needed improving more than anything else, and so philosophy was the right step for me. You might already have an end in mind – teaching, social work, civil service – but even if you don’t, academic life is an enjoyable and enriching way to spend a few years that will have lasting benefits regardless of what happens afterwards.

When moving on from Go Higher to undergraduate, I believe the main challenge is the change of environment, not the change of level. What I mean by this is that studying with fellow mature students can sometimes be richer and more engaging than studying alongside young people coming straight from school. I’ve found that academics love having mature students in their classes, because we are generally undaunted by answering questions and contributing to discussions, whereas this often seems difficult for younger students, who might be lacking in confidence, dealing with the rigours of being away from home for the first time, or nursing hangovers from the night before. Being a mature undergraduate can be a little isolating at times, so good planning is needed – there are bursts of activity around exams and deadlines, interspersed with long periods of self-learning, and so I’d advise making the most of the opportunity for intense study during term time, which leaves the long summer and Christmas breaks free for employment.

The University of Liverpool seems genuinely committed to providing opportunities for students, and I’ve benefited tremendously from many of them. My degree, in the end, took me five years to complete instead of three, after a succession of health problems caused me to have to suspend my studies on two occasions. The non-academic support staff have always been sympathetic and understanding, allowing me to return when was right for me. Furthermore, this year the University’s Enterprise Fund awarded me £5000 of start-up funding for a side-business I am starting, having completed their Design Your Future scheme. I have also recently been awarded the John Lennon Memorial Scholarship that will pay the full fees for a Master of Research (MRes) in music and philosophy, that I will be starting at the Department of Music this coming September (thanks Yoko!). I have just edited and designed the Department of Philosophy’s Final Year Anthology of student dissertations, and had an essay of mine included in the School of the Arts’ annual student Anthology.  The opportunities are almost endless, and achievable for every student motivated enough to pursue them.

After my MRes, I am hoping to continue to study, and intend to apply to the University of Oxford for further postgraduate study, or perhaps even a second degree in Law there, or even Doctorate funding to stay here in Liverpool. Having a degree now gives me options to plan my future and career in a mature and predictable way, something that wasn’t ever a possibility in the past. I’m delighted to be a success story for the University and for Go Higher, and a walking proof that it works as intended.

Go for it, I promise you won’t regret it.

Rhys Jones BA Hons.
July 2022

P.s. Don’t worry about the student loans, it’s not real money…

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