Embarking on the long journey to uni

My journey to university began back in 2008 when I attended a unionlearn event to promote Higher Education (HE) to mature learners.

From this event I was able to organise for a cohort of Nine rail workers to take a 60 credit distance learning program with the University of Derby. Three learners, including myself, where sponsored by the unions, and the remaining six were sponsored by EMT. 

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While the course led to a certificate in HE on completion, the credits could also be used towards a degree for those wishing to progress. The program also served as an access course to get you up to speed with studying at a degree level. At this point I had no other ambition than to offer the opportunity to study at an HE level to my colleagues, and to understand university so that I could promote HE in the workplace.

My educational background was not a good one, I’d left school at 16, with no qualifications and followed the family’s foot steps into the rail industry working my way up from a Junior Railman to become a Train Driver. At university I discovered that I was dyslexic, something I’d always suspected, and which probably accounts for my poor performance at school. While I was glad to enter the world of work, I did regret my wasted time at school, but getting back into education when you are working the revolving shift patterns we work in the rail industry is virtually impossible. So when the ULR role was created I jumped at the chance to begin to organise education within the workplace, I completed English, Maths, and IT courses at level 2, and it was these that gave me the confidence to enrol onto the HE program.

Having completed the 60 credit program I chose to re-enrol at university a year later as a main stream student. By this time I was seconded from EMT to Aslef Education as a Project Worker, so it was easier for me to arrange my diary to attend university. Although juggling my day jobs of Educational Project Worker with a portfolio of companies, maintaining my competences as a Train Driver, and studying were never easy. Hence it took me 7 years to complete my degree, I don’t like to think about how much of my spare time I used to complete my assignments, but I feel it was worth it.  

When I returned to university as a main stream student I enrolled onto the Joint Honours Scheme, Combined Studies, I was attracted to this because it allowed me to undertake modules from different faculties. The only caveat was that these have to be agreed with your Academic Councillor, the major downside to this pathway is you end up with a non-specific degree, in other words there is no subject named on your degree. By the end of the first year, which actually took me 2 ½ years to complete, it was clear that my interests were in 3 subjects, so I transferred to the Joint Honours Scheme, and I concentrated on; Education, because of my interest in promoting lifelong learning in the workplace, this has helped me to understand learning in a wider context. HR because as a Project Worker I needed to develop my organisational skills to deliver the outcomes of our project. This, at times, was maybe the hardest of my 3 subjects, but it has helped me to understand the function and value of good strategic HR within a business. Although my main interest here was in Talent Management and the Learning and Development roles of HR. My third subject was Sociology because I think it’s is important to understand how, and why society works, or doesn’t work depending on your view. Mainly it allowed me to examine the inequalities within society we should all try to address if we want to live in a fairer world. So on completion I graduated with a First Class Bachelor of Arts Degree in Education, Human Resource Management, and Sociology. I would have been happy with a pass, but I have to say the first was a massive bonus.

At 58 my next career move may well be to retire! But seriously I think all education is valuable so long as you enjoy it, when I set out in HE I never thought I would complete a degree, the ethos was just to promote pathways from the Skills for Life courses we were offering at the time. While a degree is an extreme example of a learning activity I do feel that you cannot really promote lifelong learning if you are undertaking it, in some form, yourself. That would be like a car salesman not being able to drive. So to answer your question I would say personal interest.

I feel I’ve gained such a lot from my time at uni, the process forces you to challenge your views and often takes you out of your comfort zone, I didn’t always agree with what was taught but it was always interesting. A good lecturer will make you think about the subject and set you on a path to finding your own answers.  As a mature student I felt I gained more from university than a lot of younger students, who’ve only ever known education. That’s not to belittle them in anyway, it’s just that most mature students appreciate the opportunity more. Also because of my interest in education I spent a lot of my time observing the whole culture of learning at university, and by undertaking 3 subjects I was able to experience how these very different faculties work. 

The experience has enabled me to advise and support my colleagues regarding HE, something I couldn’t have done without going through the process. In the first and second years we were given a lot of group work, usually presentations, during these you tended to find that the mature students would end up working together. Most of the younger ones were ok, but some were disorganised, or just left everything until the last minute. Which they could do because they were studying full time, but when you are juggling studying with a job and family life you really have to plan ahead. Of course assignment times could get a bit fraught, but all the lecturers I had were very supportive, many had done their studies while keeping down a full time job, so they understood the problems.

I’ve plans for future study as I’m getting withdrawal symptoms already, so I’ve just completed my first Future Learn course, and a couple of other short courses. 

If anyone asked me what would you say to other people looking to go back into education - I would advise anyone to go for it, just don’t bite off more than you can chew. For first time learners just try some bite size learning, like Future Learn or one of the current crop of free 12 week distance courses that are on offer. A degree is a massive commitment, but my experience shows it is possible, although I would always say to anyone that as not previously studied at that level to undertake an access course first, and be aware of the large amounts of time it will take up. While you can now access universities libraries electronically from home you still need plenty of time for research, so the support of your family is key to succeeding.   

I would just like to thank the unionlearn team in the East Midlands, particularly the late Mary Alys, and Gary O’Donnel, for their vision in promoting the 60 credit program  to the unions, and of course Aslef Education, and my family for all their support.  

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Chris Nutty

Chris Nutty is a Train Driver for East Midlands Trains (EMT), and has been involved in lifelong learning, through Aslef’s Educational project, as both a ULR and Project Worker since 2005.

Chris has been studying with a view to going to University – this is his story.