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Where are the mature students in 2017?

David Kernohan takes a look at the data underlying a special UCAS report into the phenomenon of disappearing mature students.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Mature students tend to get lumped in with part-time in contemporary HE policy, or perhaps under a wider banner of the “non-traditional” student.

So full marks to UCAS for taking a data-driven and timely look at the issue – the first, we hear, of a series. This report looks primarily at what mature students are like, and what they do. Turns out the archetypical mature student is female, lives at home, applies late in the cycle to a single institution. And studies nursing.

At least – this is what mature students who apply via UCAS look like. So flexible and part-time study – likely a huge mature student market, is not shown. The report does suggest that “several recent studies” have shown a decline, but we are not shown data.

Subject to student choice

The subject split is very pronounced. The issues that nursing has faced – the loss of bursaries and the worsening experience of nursing as a career – have long been mapped as a special case within UCAS datasets, and it is tempting to situate the issues faced in mature recruitment as a parallel effect.

The above graph, based on figure 3.6 of the UCAS reports, shows the narrowness of subject choices amongst mature students as compared to 18-year-olds. So why might this be? The data isn’t clear, but the temptation is to view the undergraduate degree as very much a vocational choice for mature students – with individuals (working perhaps, in the wider caring processions) making the decision to progress their career via a degree course linked to a logical “next stage”.

Cheering for Scotland?

Significant year-on-year declines in England can be linked to two events – the raising of fees in 2012 and the loss of the nursing bursary in 2016. But the significant overall growth in mature recruitment can be linked to the inclusion of a set of teacher-training courses in UCAS figures for the 2015 cycles. The following graph, based on figure 1.7a of the report, illustrates this.

But we can see that Scotland had performed well for mature recruitment even before this – long vying with London for the top spots. Lower rates of mature entry can be seen for the East coast of England, areas linked to small-town deprivation and low employment. Precisely, you would hope, the kind of areas that would be benefiting from mature study linked to retraining. Note – too – that these are entry rates per region, based on an estimate of the total population within each group.

Comparing across age groups

Digging in to the data that underpins figure 1.7b (but presenting it in an easier to read format) gives us more of an insight into what is going on here.

We’re looking at entry rates by mature sub-groups, across regions, for the 2017 UCAS cycle.  What’s interesting is that London’s good performance is attributable to the younger end of the age group, Scotland leads in every segment. If you are looking at the more mature subset of “mature students” you start seeing the north of England and Wales looking a bit more promising.

So what have we learned?

What is interesting is what is missing – as so often with data releases. As we know nursing is a huge recruiter of mature students, would it not be possible to see this data presented separately? Does ethnicity have any bearing on mature recruitment? Is there really no available data on part-time study that could have been used? But most importantly – what can be done about this sorry state of affairs?

Bring back nursing bursaries is an obvious quick answer, and one we must hope the post-18 review team are intending to recommend. But there are longer-term issues – Julie Lydon of the University of South Wales, in her introduction, notes that she is working with Universities UK and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) on the issue, suggesting that:

It is not only students who lose out as a result of these barriers, but also employers – they are unable to access and tap into the untold talent and skills the UK economy possesses.

Knowing more about the mature students we do have, and what is stopping others from following them, feels like a useful start.

7 responses to “Where are the mature students in 2017?

  1. These are important caveats from David – UCAS is used for FT UG arriving in September/October. You’d need to join this to HESA data to check that provision with, say, a January start isn’t playing a part in pulling some students out of the main cycle. But, clearly the change to Nursing is big enough to have an effect over the whole sector.

  2. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have more comparable data? Eurostudent can provide helpful insights into the characteristics of students including mature students in European comparison – e.g.
    That might help a deeper dive into how to encourage mature students into tertiary education – a key discussion in view of an increasingly dynamic and digital economy.

  3. Why does the mature category stop at 50 years old? Surely, for example, someone aged 54 might begin a degree to improve their employment potential for the next 10 years. This data seems to indicate that there are no undergraduate over 50 years of age (i.e. 17 years prior to retirement age), is that the case or is there another category that hasn’t been reported?

  4. @Lynn – that is a very good question. I wondered that too. I suspect that the (likely very low) numbers are suppressed for data protection reasons – but I don’t know for sure and will ask.

  5. The UCAS analysis excludes half of mature students and far more than half of mature students pre-2012 due to it not including part-time.

    I’m not sure any inferences can be made about mature students in general from it – it’s about the special sub-set of adults who are able to take a three-year break from their lives to study full-time.

    It is disappointing that UCAS never explicitly acknowledge that so many students are excluded in the report or in their communications around it. I’m sure many in their audience don’t realise it’s such a high proportion so as to mean conclusions cannot be generalised to all mature students and in my opinion makes the analysis misleading.

    I think the reliance on (more timely) UCAS data rather than HESA data in interpreting trends in HE, setting national targets and assessing policy success is a big factor behind the massive blind-spot that the UK Government and much debate has for part-time HE.

  6. Have students studying with the OU been included in this study? The OU is targeting mature students but registration does not happen through UCAS.

  7. It would be interesting to see this updated with postgraduate study. Being non-UCAS, where would you get data on that?

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