No 'typical' mature students

People from all walks of life are returning to full- or part-time higher education
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The Independent Online

The student stereotype of a fresh-faced 18-year-old from a leafy suburb was dealt a death blow by Baroness Blackstone, Minister for Higher Education, last Tuesday. Almost all part-time students and 45 per cent of full-time students now fall into the "mature" category, but even then, there was no such thing as a "typical mature student" she told a conference organised in London by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP).

The student stereotype of a fresh-faced 18-year-old from a leafy suburb was dealt a death blow by Baroness Blackstone, Minister for Higher Education, last Tuesday. Almost all part-time students and 45 per cent of full-time students now fall into the "mature" category, but even then, there was no such thing as a "typical mature student" she told a conference organised in London by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP).

"They come from a variety of backgrounds," she said. "Some are single; some have children; some are in their twenties; some have grandchildren - and higher education needs to be flexible enough to respond to their diverse needs." The country needed more such students, she told delegates, who included vice-chancellors, university and college registrars, admissions tutors, departmental heads, chief education officers and students union representatives. "People need to be better skilled and better educated than ever before. Life-long learning is essential in the modern economy."

To this end, she said, the Government was introducing a number of incentives, including fee waivers, access bursaries of up to £1,000 for mature students with children and loans for those on low incomes. All this and more should, the Government hopes, reverse the decline in applications over the past few years and make room for 12,000 more full-time and 33,000 more part-time students from a "wide variety of backgrounds" in 2001/02.

Dr Michael Goldstein, Vice-chancellor of Coventry University and chairman of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) explained the apparent decline.

"In 1997, following the announcement that fee contributions were to come in for 1998 and grants were to disappear completely, there was a surge in the number of mature student entrants. Over the past three years there has been a significant decrease. But numbers are still higher than they were six years ago."

According to UCAS figures, the number of students aged over 21 and accepted on to higher education courses has leapt from 63,056 in 1994 to 69,122. Dr Goldstein also told the CVCP conference that there are now more mature women students on full-time courses than men: "the reverse of the situation in 1994".

Ross Hayman, UCAS communications director, said: "Although fewer mature students are entering full-time higher education, more are opting for part-time courses and the Government is expanding the number of part-time higher education courses at local colleges. Mature students often prefer to study close to home and at times that fit in with their commitments."

The number on part-time degree courses rose from 149,000 five years ago to 160,000 today, while those on other part-time courses, such as HNDs, HNCs and the DipHE soared from 99,000 to 159,000.

Clearly there can be no better time than the present for the more mature to grasp the nettle and tackle a degree or diploma course. Many whose entry to higher education has been delayed until they are truly ready often show greater motivation than those who move straight from school sixth form to college campus. The drop-out rate is low and the success-rate high. The Higher Education Funding Council for England recently published a league table of the best universities for mature student retention (see table, left). The University of the West of England (UWE), for example, not only admits among the highest number of mature students, but also sees a high proportion of them graduate.

A report by two University of the West of England academics, Sue Hatt and Arthur Baxter, divides mature students into two categories: interrupters and returners. Interrupters are those who have not had a significant break from education and who are less likely to have worked full-time. They might have taken longer to gain their qualifications, might come from abroad or might have already tasted higher education but dropped out and come back.

The returner is generally older, will have had a break from education, will probably not have been successful at school and is likely to have completed an access course prior to first degree entry. Older men might have had to face redundancy; women might be returning to education after bringing up a family.

The ever-increasing numbers of mature students on part-time courses now find greater flexibility. Many need to hold down jobs and have families to look after. Birkbeck College, part of London University, which Baroness Blackstone ran before joining the Government, specialises in teaching only mature part-time students in the evenings.

Barbara Anderson, Birkbeck's development officer, who gained her own degree from the Open University, praised the college's staff for providing part-time mature students "with a 'total university experience', not simply flavour-of-the-month qualifications for people who drift in and out in the evenings".

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