Improving HE access and opportunities for mature students

20 February 2014

The challenge of improving mature access amid sharply declining numbers of older people applying to higher education institutions was explored at an event hosted by the University of East London and organised in association with NIACE and Action on Access.

According to the Independent Commission on Fees, full-time mature student applications have fallen by 14% since the trebling of tuition fees and the introduction of the new loans system. At the same time part-time student numbers have fallen by 40% since 2010, according to HEFCE figures, a loss of 105,000 students.

Held in the presence of Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, Patron of NIACE, the event facilitated discussions on access, recruitment and the experience of mature students, capturing a range of voices.

During her speech, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, said:

“There has been a steady growth in numbers of mature students over a long period of time. But these numbers are dropping. To maintain that growth in mature students we need to do a bit of work, and we will need the help of those who have been on that journey. Part of the battle is confidence.”

Also speaking at the event were mature students including former Adult Learners’ Week award winners Frank Harris and Izzy Dunbar.

For Frank, a return to education provided an escape from 35 years in and out of prison, battling addiction and homelessness. In just four years he quit drugs, gained ‘A’ grade GCSEs and started training in counselling. Since then he has completed an NVQ in supporting homeless and vulnerable people and is currently in his final year of a degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of East London. He told attendees at the event:

“I’m engaging, I feel I’m part of a community. I feel part of my family. And that’s because of the doors that education has opened up to us.”

Izzy Dunbar left school at the age of 16 with few qualifications and worked as a cleaner and waitress until her late 30s. Learning has enabled her to progress in life and she now supports 110 Army and Navy Learning Centres worldwide. She also completed a Masters Degree in Adult Literacy, Numeracy and ESOL at Lancaster University. Asked how she would encourage prospective mature students, Izzy said:

“You have to try to inspire that with your journey. Education opens doors. It can lead to such a better life, such fulfilment, and you pass that onto your children.”