Topic briefing: mature learners

Case study: Teesside University

Teesside’s Summer University programme offers a range of accredited and non-accredited introductory modules across a range of programmes. These are designed for adults with little or no recent experience of higher education and those who require additional skills in order to progress into higher education. The Summer University also aids retention of current students by offering them modules to enhance their learning and study skills. In 2013-14, completion rates (completion being students who attended the full course and/or passed their registered module) rose to 89%. 

All students on the Summer University programme are provided with detailed information about the progression routes available to them.  For some, progression is evident immediately after completing the module with their acceptance on to their chosen degree programme or continued study on their existing programme.  For others, particularly those who have not participated in higher level study before or who have taken a break from their learning, it is a longer process and the University engages with them over a number of years to support their progression.  In the academic year 2013-14, 326 students enrolled on to one of the Summer University modules. Excluding students engaged in retention activities, 89 participants progressed to further study (67 per cent full-time and 33 per cent to part-time courses). Those that did not progress immediately continued to participate in activities designed to support their access to higher education.

For further information contact Professor Eileen Martin, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) (Eileen.Martin@tees.ac.uk)

Case study: University of Essex

As mature students are at greater risk of non-continuation than their younger counterparts, the University of Essex runs a two-day Housewarming scheme for new mature students, in particular those living outside university accommodation. This event enables them to meet other ‘like-minded’ new students and interact with current students (including students from the Students’ Union Mature and Part-Time Students Association). The scheme provides them with advice about how to get involved in campus life, and offers introductory sessions on the academic skills required for higher education study. Students are told about the support available to develop their skills, and how to get best use of the IT systems and software associated with their course.

The university evaluates the Housewarming by comparing the continuation rate of new mature students who attended the event to that of new mature students who did not. Since its inception in 2010-11, each year a higher proportion of students who have attended the Housewarming have continued to study the following year compared with mature students who did not attend. Since 2010-11, the non-continuation rate of students attending the Housewarming is approximately one-third lower than the rate for those mature students who did not attend. In-depth interviews conducted with Housewarming participants in 2011-12 also suggested the scheme had played a pivotal role in transforming mature students’ sense of belonging and identity as ‘university students’.

For further information contact Rachel Earle, Director of Admissions and Access (rearle@essex.ac.uk)

Context

This briefing gives an overview of the current challenges around access, success and progression for mature learners and explains how universities and colleges are working to support mature learners through their access agreements. It also suggests questions that institutions might wish to consider when further developing that work in future.

We hope this briefing will stimulate thinking and discussion about how mature learners could be supported more effectively by universities and colleges, leading to more evidence-led approaches tailored to institutions’ own context and circumstances.

Who are mature students?

In line with the national strategy for access and student success we define mature students as:

This definition covers a large variety of learners of potentially very different ages and with different needs and experiences.

What do we know about mature learners?

Mature learners are more likely than younger learners to have characteristics associated with disadvantage and under-representation in higher education. Research by million+ highlights that mature learners are more likely than younger learners to:

Therefore it is important that institutions have tailored strategies in place to better attract and support mature learners to enter higher education.

Why are mature learners important to universities and colleges?

There are significant benefits for institutions in attracting and supporting mature learners. Never Too Late to Learn, a report by million+ and the National Union of Students (NUS), states that mature participation in higher education helps raise aspirations and increase wider levels of progression and social mobility. Mature learners often bring to their studies a commitment to excel, and significant life experience which helps to enrich and expand the nature of student body. In short, mature participation in higher education is vital for individuals, institutions and wider society.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that population of those aged 18 in England is projected to decline overall between 2012 and 2020. With a smaller pool of prospective young applicants to higher education, there is therefore an opportunity for institutions to widen their recruitment to older age groups.

What do we know about the recruitment of mature learners?

The recruitment of mature learners appears to be more susceptible to fluctuation than that of younger learners:

Figure 1. Number of accepted undergraduate applicants between 2010-2014 in UK and EU split by age compared to number of UK and EU undergraduate part time entrants 2010-2013

Mature topic briefings Figure 1

Data source: Accepted applicant data comes from UCAS End of Cycle report (2014). As part time students do not apply through UCAS, the data on part time undergraduate entrants comes from HESES/HEIFES data (see HEFCE’s Pressure from all sides: Economic and policy influences on part-time higher education report (REF: 2014/08d)).

OFFA’s guidance for mature learners

OFFA’s guidance in recent years has included a focus on mature learners as a particular target group. We want institutions to consider the specific challenges faced by this group, setting out in their access agreements what they are doing to support and attract mature students.

In particular, we ask institutions to consider how they can attract and support mature learners with non-traditional qualifications into higher education. This is because mature students are more likely than younger learners to take a non-traditional route into higher education, such as via a Foundation Year, Certificate of Higher Education or an Access to Higher Education diploma.

Access to HE’s Key Statistics 2012-13 report shows that 49 per cent of learners studying Access to Higher Education diplomas in 2012-13 were over 25 years of age. Around 45 per cent of learners obtaining Access to Higher Education diplomas in 2011-12 progressed into higher education in 2012-13. In 2012-13, over 80 per cent of the organisations providing Access to HE courses were further education colleges. This shows the significant role the further education sector has to play in attracting mature learners and those with non-traditional qualifications to higher education.

We also ask institutions to take into account how they can better support mature learners to succeed once they have entered higher education. Research by million+ and NUS shows that mature learners face particular barriers when studying, in particular financial hardship. Additional analysis by HEFCE shows that mature students have lower levels of retention than younger students. Significant reasons for this cited by students are the difficulties of balancing study with other commitments and/or financial problems.

Institutions should therefore consider where they have high concentrations of mature students studying particular subjects and whether they can provide effective support to these learners at a subject/faculty level (as well as across the whole institution). For example, degrees in Policy Studies and Childhood Studies may be popular among mature students because of their vocational potential and the way in which they draw upon learners’ prior life and work experience.

How are institutions supporting mature learners in access agreements?

Access 

Universities and colleges carry out a range of activities to attract mature students. These include: 

Some institutions report success in using student ambassadors to raise aspirations and engage with prospective mature students. Universities and colleges often recruit younger student ambassadors, to whom potential mature learners may find it more difficult to relate. Using alumni or older leaners as ambassadors in pre-entry events can be useful in encouraging mature learners. For example, mature students at the University of Leeds help promote higher education through the Learning Champions programme. This scheme has helped to raise aspirations and awareness of higher education among over 500 adults (in 2013-14) from a range of backgrounds.

Student success

Over a third of institutions identify the need to support the retention of mature students in their access agreements. A number of institutions have identified the
non-continuation of mature students as a particular challenge, highlighting retention as a significant barrier facing both full and part-time learners. 

The sector average 2012-13 non-continuation rate of UK domiciled full-time first degree mature entrants (11.9 per cent) is double that of young entrants (5.7 per cent). The sector average 2011-12 non-continuation rate for UK domiciled part-time first degree entrants (who are much more likely to be mature students) is a substantially higher 35 per cent.

Many institutions report that they offer intensive pastoral, tutorial and mentoring support schemes for mature students. These are aimed at supporting students throughout the duration of their course, identifying those at risk of dropping out. The University of Leeds’ Lifelong Learning Centre provides academic and pastoral support services to enhance the retention and achievement of mature learners, available at flexible times to fit around other life commitments.

Mature students are more likely to have undiagnosed disabilities than younger students. Therefore it is important for institutions to offer diagnostic assessments and additional learning support for mature students.

Over 10 per cent of institutions mention that they are conducting research into identifying the barriers facing mature learners and seeking practical strategies to overcome them. A number of institutions are also supporting student union activities targeting mature learners and talking to focus groups in order to give mature learners a voice and understand the unique challenges facing them.   

Progression 

Some institutions report in their access agreements that mature learners face specific challenges when transitioning from higher education into employment. Therefore institutions should consider what career activities and programmes should be tailored to the particular needs of mature learners.

For example, City University London incorporates Graduate Market and Employability (a 10-credit module) as part of its undergraduate law degree. This supports students from non-traditional backgrounds to think about their career beyond higher education from an early stage. Although this module is available for both mature and non-mature students, the course covers changing careers and using former work or life experience.

Financial support 

Never Too Late To Learn states that mature learners tend to be more debt-averse than younger learners. They are also likely to be self-funded from earnings, savings and loans (rather than receiving funding from employers). As mature students are also more likely to have family commitments or dependents, they may have greater financial concerns than younger students.

Therefore it is important for institutions to consider how they could provide financial aid to mature learners to ensure concerns over finance do not act as a deterrent to higher education study.

Only a very small minority of institutions (less than five per cent) provide financial support that is specifically targeted towards mature learners facing financial difficulty. However, it is important to note that mature learners may be able to access other financial support schemes where they meet the eligibility criteria.

Mature students have different types of financial needs than younger students. For example, they may prefer to receive financial aid in the form of childcare vouchers for their dependents rather than accommodation discounts.

Institutions should also consider whether the income thresholds determining their financial support awards allow them to meet the needs of mature learners. Mature learners may live in higher earning households than younger learners because they work part-time or live with another earner. However, they may still face greater financial challenges than younger learners due to their greater financial commitments (as outlined above). For example, Birkbeck, University of London, recognises that mature students may have relatively high household incomes but also significant financial commitments (for example, mortgage repayments or childcare costs). This is reflected in their threshold for financial support for part-time students to £40,000.  

A small minority of institutions (about five per cent) offer scholarships to learners progressing from an Access to HE programme.  As mature learners are more likely to progress into higher education through this route, this is a way for institutions to target financial support at mature learners and we would encourage more institutions to consider whether this might help them target their financial support more effectively.

Information, advice and guidance (IAG) 

Mature learners face additional challenges accessing relevant information, advice and guidance (IAG) about entering higher education compared to their younger counterparts. Research by million+ and NUS, and by Birkbeck, University of London shows that many mature learners do not make use of public information sources and rely instead on institutional sources of information when applying to university. Therefore it is especially important for universities and colleges to seek to provide high quality IAG for mature learners.  However, institutions may find it more difficult to reach out to and target IAG at mature learners because they are a disparate group outside of traditional classroom settings.

Less than 10 per cent of institutions refer to the provision of IAG to mature learners in their access agreements. We would encourage more institutions to discuss this in their agreements. An example of institutions where such activity is happening include Canterbury Christ Church University, which employs a pre-entry guidance officer to support mature students and ensure they are able to access specific marketing activity.

Targets 

Questions to consider

  1. How are you collecting evidence of the gaps in access, student success, and progression of mature students at your institution?
  1. How could you listen to and engage with mature learners better, so that you can provide effective support and address any barriers facing them?
  1. What systems do you have in place to robustly evaluate the impact of your work in relation to mature learners?
  1. How do staff members at your institution work flexibly and collaboratively with others at all levels across the whole institution to support mature learners?
  2. How do you work with external partners to build a shared infrastructure to support mature learners?
  1. What systems do you have in place to develop and test new, impactful approaches to target mature learners in your unique institutional context?