Student choices: Mature students missing out on information to plan their future

Thousands of mature students are shying away from university courses through fear of fees, loans and debts. Here John Izbicki sweeps away a few myths and spells out some encouraging realities.
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The Independent Culture
According to HESA - the Higher Education Statistics Agency - there are now 1,180,000 students aged 21-plus (the official definition of mature) at higher education institutions. That represents 67 per cent of all higher education students. Of these, more than 776,000 of them are over 25 - most of them women - or around 46 per cent of the total.

Last week, a large group of mature students, many of them black, many with one or more children to care for, many of them jobless and many of them on social security benefits, met to voice their anxieties at one of London's further education colleges. They were more concerned about losing their benefits, being forced to borrow money and falling into heavy debt, than about the pounds 1,000 tuition fee - even after they were assured that none of them would be required to pay it.

Further north it is no different. Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), among the biggest of the "new" universities, has found increasing evidence that mature students (more than 60 per cent of its total) are being deterred from applying. Access course tutors report that their students are loath to take the plunge into a two or three-year higher education course if they have to find the money to pay for it.

Lydia Meryll, an admissions tutor at MMU, said it was tragic that the very people the Dearing Committee wanted to draw into higher education were now being held back.

"They are scared. They don't realise that their joint income with partners needs to be more than pounds 23,000 before they have to contribute towards the fee and they will need to earn more than pounds 35,000 before they are liable to pay the full pounds 1,000," she declared.

"Progressive educationists have fought for years to open up university education to ordinary people and to adults who are able to make a significant contribution to their communities. This is now seriously at risk.

"We have designed a new BA (Hons) degree programme for people who have gained a great deal of experience as volunteers within their communities, people who are now on management committees.

"These are the very people on whom so much of the devolved power of the state is beginning to fall. They deserve this education. Yet they have been discouraged from using the services of a university because they feel a huge fee is blocking their path."