Forgotten learners: age should never be a barrier to higher education

14 Mar 2018

Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, writes on the need for flexibility and the transformational change we owe to people of all ages who wish to access HE.

For so many people, higher education is a gateway to new skills, personal development and improved career prospects, and I’m sure we can all agree that age should never be a barrier to accessing these opportunities. The stories I hear from mature students on my visits to universities and colleges are truly inspirational, and testament to the life changing benefits of higher education – for individuals, families, and even communities. And there is a clear societal and economic benefit to people succeeding in higher education, whatever stage of their life they come to it. But too often, talented people are missing out on the chance to return to education later in life.

The consequences of falling mature student numbers are felt not just by individuals, but by employers, and society as a whole. Social mobility and productivity are negatively impacted when we don’t enable people from all walks of life and at all stages of life to realise their talent and unlock their potential. And university communities miss out on opportunities to enrich and diversify their student bodies when they focus too heavily on school leavers at the expense of people from other age groups.

While the reasons for the decline in mature student numbers are many and complex, and we should not be tempted by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ explanation or solution, there are certainly patterns we can identify. For example, we know that mature students are far more likely to be juggling their studies with work and caring commitments than their younger counterparts. Clearly, it will be extremely difficult for such students to fit a typical full-time degree timetable around their existing responsibilities; a more flexible approach is required. We’ve seen from the case studies published in the research commissioned by OFFA from the Open University  that there are many institutions using effective and innovative ways to support and encourage mature learners into higher education – for example by offering bitesize modules and free online courses which can give people a taste of higher education. The opportunity to study flexibly really can open doors and change lives, and with the unique skills and experience mature students bring to their studies, we all reap the rewards of opening these doors.

These unique skills and experience are particularly pertinent when we consider areas such as nursing and midwifery, study paths traditionally dominated by mature students. As MillionPlus have identified, ensuring a good supply of graduates to these professions is central to the provision of public services, and, by extension, societal wellbeing. And it seems self-evident that ‘life experience” is a hugely valuable asset when embarking on such a career path. So the significant decline in recent years of mature student numbers in these areas is of grave concern, and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The new Office for Students will soon pick up the baton on access and participation regulation, and I am encouraged that they have identified reversing the decline in numbers of mature students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds as a key priority. With their new resources and new powers, I hope that they will challenge higher education providers to go further than ever before to support this vitally important group of students, and enable the sector to achieve the transformational change we owe to people of all ages with the talent to benefit from higher education.