The performance of UK higher education on increasing access and widening participation is often held up as a success story.
More young people than ever before are attending university, and the number of those from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education continues to increase. Whilst there is still more that must be done by government, policymakers and universities should rightly applaud these improvements.
However, we must place these achievements in a broader context and admit that, for many older learners, this story of improved access to university is not one they recognise. The focus of reforms in the last ten years has been on the ‘traditional’ school-leaver, generally studying full-time on a three-year degree programme.
But, for other parts of the student body, the picture is very different. There have been significant declines in the number of both mature students and part-time learners studying at university, particularly in England where there have been the most significant reforms – in fees, in funding arrangements, and in student number deregulation.
Since 2008/09 there has been a 52% reduction in the number of mature students in England. If we look at those mature students that are part-time over the same period, we can see a 67% decline. Across the whole of the UK, the number of students aged 30 and over has dropped by 40% since the 2011/12 cycle. It is also worth noting that the number of students who are carrying “other degrees as designated by HESA (courses such as HNDs, HNCs and foundation years) has dropped by 67% since 2009/10.
Clearly, the reforms are not working for everyone. Even the most adept spin doctor could not argue that these policies have increased opportunities for older learners who want to re-skill, up-skill, build their confidence, or change their career.
The impact of this decline is disastrous. Remember, behind these percentages are people. People who have lost opportunities missed out, and not fulfilled their full potential. A society that puts social mobility at its heart fails if it does not enable its citizens to continue to learn and educate themselves over the course of their lives. It also deprives employers – from the largest corporations to the smallest enterprises, as well as our vital public services – of the ability to support their workers to improve and to develop their talent and potential.
This has negative consequences for two of the major goals of this government – improving social mobility and productivity. Mature learners could, therefore, be the key ingredient needed for any future industrial strategy that aims to seriously tackle regional inequality.
Seizing the opportunity
According to the most recent census data, around 20 million people in the UK’s working population did not have level 4 qualifications or above. To put that into perspective, the total number of 18-year-olds was just over 750,000 at the last count. Mature learners represent a huge pool of untapped potential across the UK. We will not meet the challenges we face today – be they related to fairness, social justice, skills development or productivity – if we continue to ignore this talent.
Mature students are the forgotten learners of the higher education system. The time has passed for the yearly laments when application and entrants numbers are published. The steep decline in their numbers at our universities has been noted by many but tolerated for too long. With a funding review announced and new regulator days away from beginning operations, the time is ripe for a fresh approach to tackling this national challenge.
MillionPlus’s new report – Forgotten learners: building a system that works for mature learners – calls for a fresh approach to unlock the potential talent of mature students. The recommendations include improving the financial support system for mature students by reintroducing maintenance grants, relaxing further the ELQ rules, and considering a fee-loan write off for nursing and midwifery students.
We also believe a more flexible system that allows students to tailor their study to the pace of their life and in line with existing commitments. Modern universities have led the way in these innovative approaches.
Concern is not enough; action is vital and urgent. The inception of the Office for Students, and the government’s Post-18 Review, must be seized upon as an opportunity to rocket-boost activities that engage with and support mature student so that we can achieve the step-change long demanded.