22 May 2012

New report calls on Government to do more for mature students

The Government must do more for mature students according to a new report from the university think-tank million+ and the National Union of Students. Mature students (who start degree courses aged 21 or over) now make up almost a third of the UK’s undergraduate population, up from 10 per cent in 1980.

Never Too Late To Learn: Mature Students in Higher Education, which will be launched tomorrow (Wednesday), calls on the Government to celebrate the achievements of the 430,000 mature students who study at universities and colleges each year but warns that future opportunities will be reduced if Ministers focus policies and social mobility strategies on younger students.

In addition to analysing official statistics, the report is based on research into the experiences of 4,000 mature students and highlights the challenges they face in juggling academic study with paid work, family commitments and financial responsibilities. It also investigates how mature students’ lives, careers and earnings are transformed by participating in higher education.

million+ and the NUS call on policymakers, universities, colleges and students’ union officers to work together to improve opportunities for mature students but they also say that Ministers should reconsider funding policies if the significant fall in applications from mature students in England for degree courses in 2012/13 continues. They point, in particular, to the potential “double whammy” facing mature students of limits on student numbers which restrict places at local universities combined with a funding regime which favours younger students with high A-level grades.

Professor Patrick McGhee, Chair of million+, said: “In the week that the Deputy Prime Minister is revisiting the Government’s social mobility strategy this report is a timely reminder that social mobility is not just about young people. This research confirms that, contrary to popular perception, university isn’t just for 18 year olds with A-levels. A third of undergraduates enter university for the first time when they are over 21 and 57% of these students study full-time. This is something we should be proud of – it’s a unique strength of our system – but it also means that we have a responsibility to preserve, protect and promote opportunities for people to study whatever their age, background and family, financial or work commitments.”

Liam Burns, NUS President: “Universities are working hard to explain the complexities of the new funding system in England, but mature students report financial hardship is one of the key challenges they face. We can’t ignore the significant drop in full-time applications from mature applicants for the coming year, and we need to understand the reasons for this and prompt a change of direction in the Government’s approach.”

“Our research also shows that as many as 80 per cent of current mature students hold an Access to Higher Education qualification and undertook that course when they were over the age of 24 – the same is true for over half of those holding other Level 3 qualifications including A-Levels. The proposed withdrawal of direct public funding for Level 3 qualifications from next year runs the risk of further reducing mature student progression to university.”

For more information, please contact: Tim Blanchard, Communications Management, 01727 733881/07584 170881, tim@communicationsmanagement.co.uk

Notes to editors:

  1. million+ is a university think-tank, working to solve complex problems in higher education www.millionplus.ac.uk. NUS is a voluntary membership organisation and a confederation of 600 students’ unions in the UK.
  2. Never too Late To Learn will be launched tomorrow, Wednesday 23 May, at a parliamentary reception for current and former mature students. Speakers will include Baroness Verma, Government Spokesperson (Lords) for Higher Education, Shabana Mahmood MP, Shadow Minister for Universities, Graham Evans, MP for Weaver Vale and a former mature student, Liam Burns and Professor Patrick McGhee. The report can be downloaded from www.millionplus.ac.uk/research/never-too-late-to-learn. The report research involved analysis of data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, a survey of 3,963 mature students from around the UK undertaken by million+ and NUS in November 2011 and a series of workshops for mature students and university staff held during March and April 2012.
  3. The report highlights the particularly prominent role being taken by modern universities in delivering supportive learning environments for students of all ages and how students’ unions have a crucial part to play ensuring mature students have a genuine voice in shaping their university experience. Examples of good practice featured in the report include the ‘Step up to HE’ programme at Staffordshire University (a free ten week course to re-introduce people to education and university study); support on applications through the University of Cumbria’s ‘Great Applications Start Here’ and the University of Central Lancashire’s Applicant Call Back Service. The University of Wolverhampton and the University of Bedfordshire run sessions for mature students on higher study and dealing with finances. The University of Derby’s ‘Love Your Mind’ programme of workshops and web resources also covers specific areas of anxiety for mature students returning to education, such as delivering presentations.
  4. The report finds that mature students are diverse but as a cohort mature students are more likely to have certain characteristics that place them within a framework of social mobility. Compared their younger peers mature students are more likely to have non-traditional qualifications, to apply to just one university or FE college, to study part-time and locally, to be juggling study and family responsibilities, to be from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups and to have disabilities. Mature students are less likely to make use of public sources of information about university and course choice.
  5. The vast majority (93.4 per cent) of mature students characterise their time in higher education positively. However, the research finds that studying later in life can pose significant challenges. These include balancing study with other commitments (highlighted by 83 per cent of survey respondents), financing higher education (69.4 per cent) and picking up new or relearning old study techniques (53.7 per cent).
  6. The report recommendations include:
    a) Mature students should be considered as a widening participation group whose participation supports social mobility. Access regulation should take into account mature participation, the Widening Participation Premium (Student Opportunity Fund) should be maintained in perpetuity and the National Scholarship Programme should be scrapped and replaced with a scheme that genuinely supports participation of students from less advantaged backgrounds whatever their age.
    b) The impact of higher education policies including ‘core and margin’ student number regulations, the introduction of full-fee loans at Level 3 and the new part-time higher education loans arrangements which limit access to part-time loans to those studying between 25-75 per cent intensity should be closely monitored in light of their potential detrimental impact on mature student participation.
    c) ‘Value added’ should be seen as a legitimate measure of degree outcome and a national scheme devised to take account of the distance travelled by those who enter higher education with non-traditional qualifications.