OfS briefing on mature learners

Reskilling and upskilling are welcome facets of the government’s levelling up agenda, and likely to form a significant component of the path to the post-covid economy

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

The legacy of years of policy on equivalent level qualifications, and the post 2012 decline in part-time provision, has arguably left the sector unable to cope with an expected influx of mature learners. A new insight brief from the Office for Students highlights the expected leap in demand from mature applicants – and the likely role of the planned English lifelong loan entitlement (LLE). More importantly – it sets out how the sector needs to respond.

There’s no Uni Connect for mature learners – in most providers there is no established outreach on reskilling. That said, 45 per cent of undergraduates are mature learners (defined as 21 or over), giving lie to the stereotype that students are 18 years old and away from home for the first time (the specific UK residential model is not as widely appreciated as is sometimes suggested).

Many of our measures of disadvantage – POLAR, free school meals – do not apply to mature students – on IMD the usual pattern is inverted, with 26.6 per cent living in the most deprived areas and 13.1 per cent in the least deprived areas.

Mature study

Though the briefing makes the fashionable case for degree apprenticeships favoured by mature students (fundamentally there isn’t enough of them to know if this is a trend or just noise) the real action concerns the relationship between mature students and part time study. Historically, part-time has been a clear preference for mature study – arguably the 2012 reforms made this financially less attractive, and economic conditions spurred upskillers and reskillers who were able to get courses done quickly by focusing fully on study. As above the end of ELQ funding played a part here too – OfS also notes a reluctance among employers to support study.

Mature students are concentrated in specialist providers, FE colleges and low-tariff universities. This is interesting, in that applications from mature students would likely have very little to do with A level tariffs, and many providers may be making an active choice to aim recruitment at mature students rather than compete with those who have traditionally been successful at selective, post A level, recruitment. The OfS argument – that mature students would be likely to prefer to study locally – also holds some water, but we are looking here at a distinct part of the sector.

Despite a tendency to study at what are (to ministers at least) less favoured providers, mature students are more likely to progress into highly skilled employment. When you consider the likelihood that mature learners will have stronger ties to their local area, and that they tend to come from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds, this is quite remarkable.

Attainment and progression

However, there are issues beyond mode of study. Mature students tend to do less well academically (in terms of their degree classification, 75.6 get a first or 2:1, compared to 85.2 per cent of young students), and are more likely not to complete their course (84.4 per cent of mature students make it to their second year, compared to 92.4 per cent of young students). The OfS position is that these issues should be addressed within access and participation plans (and lament the lack of attention paid in the plans they required, negotiated, and approved) – but it appears to me that a more radical approach is needed.

I’m also less than convinced by the dash to online in the conclusion. There is a tendency in policy to assume that technology is the solution to any given problems, and the familiar tropes about remote, online, learning get another airing here (and why are we talking about MOOCs in 2021?). Certainly these modes are suitable for some students, but the barriers (both economic and experiential) to learning online don’t speak to me as the recipe to upskill adults unused to education in any form.

What’s missing?

The commitment to re-tailor elements of Uni Connect to address mature learners is a good one, and the expansion of post-graduate conversion courses makes sense, but it feels to me like we are in an information deficit and I’m not seeing anything in here to address that. I’d expect some survey and focus group work to understand the needs of prospective mature learners, and I’d expect a commitment to engage locally and with industry groups (with the proposed employer representative groups, with schools and FE colleges, and with whatever vestiges of the Industrial Strategy and sector deals still exist) – there is nothing here.

We also clearly need serious concerted work on the funding and support offer around part time, particularly low-intensity part time, study. Nobody (not even Wales) has squared this circle in terms of funding (although we’re still waiting for details on the LLE), but there are also questions around the design and development of delivery that need to be addressed within providers.

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