Identity and Participation in UK Universities


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Contemporary sociocultural theory argues that learning can be understood as identity shift as a result of participation in communities of practice (Wenger 1998). This process is not a straightforward, linear route. Rather, people enter a new community and bring with them their identities that have developed over time and place and so the new community and its practices are experienced and evaluated in terms of their past and their present preoccupations. It therefore follows that learning is idiosyncratic as it is constructed through the interaction of a multiplicity of personal meanings. Such theoretical understandings challenge institutional approaches which impose rigidity of practice and which identify student needs through stratification by social label such as “international student” or “mature student.” In this paper we will present data from interviews and observations with diverse undergraduate and postgraduate students from a range of UK higher education institutions and demonstrate that what all students need is flexible practices in order to enact their identities and make enabling interpersonal and learning relationships which allow for successful study. Our findings contest models that call for focus on artificially constructed social groups that assume homogeneity in identity, which, in reality, do not exist.