Surge of mature applicants sparks calls for additional support

Universities and colleges have a “golden opportunity” to help a new generation of adult learners upskill, with strong increases in the number of mature applicants applying to study full time, the Office for Students (OfS) says today.

Universities and colleges have a “golden opportunity” to help a new generation of adult learners upskill, with strong increases in the number of mature applicants applying to study full-time, the Office for Students (OfS) says today.

This year, UCAS data shows full-time undergraduate mature applicants from the UK rising by 24 per cent to 96,390 – an extra 18,540 students – with applications for nursing from students aged 35 and over increasing by 39 per cent.

This follows a decade in which the total number of mature students – those aged over 21 – entering higher education fell by 19 per cent, a reduction of around 47,000 students. This decline has largely been driven by a fall in those students studying part-time and for courses below a full degree.

The significant increase in demand may reflect signs of people looking to improve and change their skills and knowledge following the COVID-19 pandemic. This comes as government plans introduce its Lifetime Skills Guarantee, including the Lifelong Loan Entitlement to help people access training throughout their lives.

According to a new Insight brief by the OfS – Improving opportunity and choice for mature students– universities and colleges face several challenges to ensure that mature students are supported, and that this growing momentum is not lost. For example:

  • mature students are more likely to discontinue their studies – in 2018-19, 84.4 per cent of mature full-time students continued onto their second year, eight percentage points lower than young students
  • full-time mature students are also significantly less likely to achieve a first or 2.1 – 75.6 per cent mature students achieve these grades compared to 85.2 per cent of young students
  • mature students are also more likely to come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and must often balance study with additional responsibilities, for example caring and work commitments.

Many universities and colleges are already addressing these challenges, building on the more flexible modes of learning they have needed to deploy during the pandemic.

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said:

“When I meet with students, mature students have some of the most inspirational and passionate personal stories. Some have not thrived at school and many are driven to achieve a particular goal – academically or in their careers. For them, the transformational effect of higher education comes through loud and clear.

“But too often the needs of mature students are overlooked. The transition into higher education for older learners can be particularly challenging – from difficulties with getting back into studying, juggling work and family commitments, or adjusting to life on campus. Encouraging data suggest we may be turning the tide in the recruitment of mature students. This presents a golden opportunity for universities and colleges to respond creatively to mature students’ needs and enable a new generation to gain the skills they need for their future careers – particularly important as we continue our recovery from the pandemic.

“We will tailor advice and guidance to the needs of mature students – both through our online resource Discover Uni and outreach through local Uni Connect partnerships. We will look to increase the focus on mature students as we agree changes to universities’ access and participation plans following the pandemic, so that the plans more fully address increased demand for local and flexible learning among adults.”

The OfS is today [Thursday 27 May] hosting an Insight event bringing together a range of expert perspectives on how mature students can be supported to succeed. OfS chair Lord Wharton, who will given the opening remarks at today’s event, said:

“All students, from all backgrounds, with the ability and desire to study at university or college should be supported to access, succeed in and progress from higher education. If we are to achieve this goal, we need to open up and indeed significantly improve the opportunities for people to access higher education later in life.

“Following more than a decade of decline, we are at a turning point for mature student participation in higher education. Application and acceptance numbers are showing the first increase for some time. And the government is now introducing a new Lifelong Learning Entitlement, which will level the playing field for studies in further or higher education at any time of life.

“The OfS will be central to these developments, through the information, advice and guidance we provide to applicants, the measures we agree with universities and colleges through their access and participation plans, and by funding the innovation and change that will be needed to meet demand in the coming years.”

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan, who will give a keynote speech at the event, said:

“It is well recognised that mature students can face more barriers than most in accessing and succeeding in their post-18 education, and this government is committed to changing that.

“Our lifetime skills guarantee will ensure that everyone, at all stages of their life, has the funding they need to access the equivalent of four years of high-quality further education, whether that’s at their local college or at a university.

“This will give everyone the chance to retrain and upskill throughout their lives and respond to this country’s ever-changing skill needs and employment patterns.”

  1. In 2010-11, 149,000 part-time mature students entered higher education. By 2019-20, this number had more than halved to 64,000 – a decline of 57 per cent. In contrast, the numbers of mature students studying full-time have gone up by 41 per cent since 2010-11; these students now outnumber their counterparts studying part-time.
  2. Mature students are more likely to attend specialist providers and less selective universities than younger students. In 2019-20, more than a third (37.2 per cent) of mature undergraduates entering higher education went to universities with low average tariff scores (which often reflect entry requirements), while roughly a quarter (23.9 per cent) went to specialist providers. By contrast, of young entrants in 2019-20, only 21.9 per cent studied at universities with low average tariff scores, while 6.0 per cent began their studies at a specialist provider. Mature student representation at more selective universities (those with high average tariff scores) has declined from 8.8 per cent in 2010-11 to 5.9 per cent in 2019-20 – a reduction of 10,790 students in absolute terms.
Published 27 May 2021

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