By the time you read this, the TAFE and university semesters will have begun. Whether you’re returning to study after several years in the workforce, or heading straight into your tertiary education after completing secondary school in 2010, you’re probably a little daunted by what’s about to happen. University and TAFE offer completely different experiences to each other but both are far removed from the compulsory schooling experience.
It’s easy to cruise through school if you complete the assigned work. Even through the final years of schooling, teachers effectively hold your hand, reminding you when to hand in work or closely monitoring what you’re doing with your time in class. They tell you when and where the exams are. To a far lesser extent, TAFE offers the same ‘safety net’. Someone is watching over you, ensuring you do what you’re supposed to do to at least pass their subject.
University, however, is very different, even in the first year. Few of your lecturers will even know your name, let alone your problems or the unique circumstances that may make your life difficult. They probably won’t care about that stuff, either. Even if they do, they’re governed by many regulations that preclude them from being too flexible or understanding. There are few reminders about when to hand in work. There’s often little or no time to complete assignment work in class. No one cares if you’re using your time in class unproductively, just as long as you’re not disturbing others. No one will warn you to pull your socks up if you slack off and only attend tutorials sporadically: you’ll just fail the subject because of your lack of attendance. Both TAFE and university, but especially the latter, require you to demonstrate initiative.
How classes are organised at TAFE and university bears some similarity, but many differences, to how they are run at school. Each semester you’ll have to enrol in some core subjects, but often there will be room for some electives. You can generally choose subjects from faculties other than your own. So, for example, you could do a Bachelor of IT, majoring in programming but minoring in marketing or business law. It’s easy to see the massive range of subjects available and to choose your first few carelessly, but it’s worth putting thought into it. You’ll only have a limited number of electives over the course to play with. If you’re determined to major or minor in something, make sure you understand what subjects you need to undertake. Be aware that you can’t enrol in just any subject: a lot of them require you to have completed something else first or to be in another class concurrently.
How your time is spent in class is very different to school. Most subjects are divided up into lectures and tutorials, the latter of which put into practice the theory delivered in the lectures and/or weekly readings (although sometimes they offer something far removed from both) and offer an experience that’s probably as close as it gets to still being in school. You’re in a fairly small group and the tutor will (hopefully) know your name. They’ll be your first point of contact if you have any problems with the subject. Some subjects and faculties offer different arrangements, though. You may have workshops and seminars, which are sort of a cross between tutorials and lectures. You may have practical sessions in a laboratory if you’re studying a science. Whatever the case, you’re generally expected to attend class at least 80 per cent of the time. Attendance is recorded in seminars and tutorials. As part of university and TAFE policy, lecturers and tutors have to be able to tell their superiors that you were usually in class – otherwise, no matter what your marks in assignments and exams may be, they can’t really claim you understand as much of the subject matter as you’re supposed to. If you reckon you can’t make the 80 per cent attendance rate, speak to your lecturer or tutor in advance. Sometimes they just can’t help you, but they’ll usually try and work out some arrangement: make-up tasks, tutorials at an alternative time or campus or whatever. It’s up to you to take the initative and deal with the situation before it becomes a problem.
Indeed, that’s the best approach with all difficulties you face academically. If you’re having difficulty with any aspect of the subject – vague assignment briefs, a misconception about some part of the subject matter, difficulties handing work in on time for whatever reason – it’s best to deal with it early. Speak to your tutor and lecturer in that order. If you’re dissatisfied with the response, go higher and speak to whoever co-ordinates the subject or deals with academic grievances in the faculty. Many universities offer classes in writing essays and delivering oral presentations, if they’re things you find difficult.
Generally, universities will go out of their way to help you if you approach them before everything comes crashing down around you. Failing a subject in university is not something you want to experience. Depending on what it was, you may have to repeat it or even appear before a panel of university staff to explain yourself and justify your right to breathe the university’s fine air. It’s an expensive exercise, as each class you undertake – even repeats – adds to your HECS-HELP debt.
While the time you have to spend on-campus at university and with many TAFE courses is far less than what you would’ve had to at school, you shouldn’t slack off or get too caught up in extracurricular commitments. There’s no one to remind you to stay on task. It’s up to you to ensure you read whatever the assigned material is on time. It’s up to you to keep abreast of changes to assignment briefs. It’s up to you to hand work in on time, in the correct place and in the correct fashion.
Getting around campus
Those first few weeks are going to be somewhat overwhelming. If you’re at a very large campus, it’ll be easy to get lost. University websites are notoriously poor sources of useful information. Neither of the two universities I attended bothered to provide visitors to the websites with usable maps. Usually, if you join the student union or at least give them a little bit of money, you’ll be provided with a diary that contains a small, fold-out map. Endlessly valuable in those early days or when some faculty scheduling conflict sees you standing outside a lecture theatre, looking at a sign that tells you to go to some room you’ve never heard of in a building you’ve never heard of.
Aside from the diary, find the student services desk for your faculty and check out what they offer. It’s the job of the staff there to help you find places and deal with administrative issues. Visiting them in person or at least emailing them is always more productive than trying to sift through all the crap on a university’s website for information that’s valuable and relevant.
The union people can help you too, although it’s up to you whether you join them. If you’re going to regularly take advantage of clubs and societies and the social events they put on, it’s worthwhile. The various events and clubs organised by the union can be a great way to meet new people. If your classes are spread across a couple of campuses of the university, the union may fund some kind of shuttle bus service. If you need to take this several times a week, the cost of union membership will soon pay for itself. Otherwise the value is debatable. Sure, they provide advocacy and support if you get into some sort of difficulty with the faculty, but you usually won’t have that much trouble getting that help even without a membership: you might have to pay for it, but nothing on campus is ever that expensive. They usually provide some sort of additional discount at the university bookshop but, unless you have to buy expensive books for eight subjects each year , the total discount may not exceed the union’s annual membership fee. Even if it does, you may find books more available for an even lower price through online retailers such as Amazon and The Book Depository. Union people will often be present at orientation events, seeking your money. Your best bet for seeing if the union offers anything that’s valuable to you is to look at their website.
Large university and TAFE campuses often have shops, banks and a variety of food purveyors. Honestly, over the years I spent at university I found most of the stuff sold on campus to be of poor quality and overpriced, even though it was pitched at students (although campus bars always have cheap beer), largely because these places figure they’ve got you over a barrel. Most universities are situated near shops or eateries. Wander around during your break and see what’s available nearby: it may be better and cheaper.