Unis should be more ambitious in approach to mature students

Effective outreach to potential mature students is vital for participation in HE among under-represented groups, says a new report

University leaders must be more creative and try innovative initiatives to entice adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds into Higher Education, concludes a report looking at better ways to widen access and participation in this under-represented group.

It also calls for a requirement from all higher education institutions (HEIs) to commit to a specified and agreed proportion of their overall outreach spend which would improve access to HE for adults.

Four universities collaborated on the project, led by The Open University (OU) and commissioned by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), to provide case studies of examples of outreach to disadvantaged adult learners across different contexts, for sharing with the rest of the sector. Birkbeck, University of London, the University of Bristol, and the University of Leeds collaborated with the OU on the six-month project, and the production of the final report: Understanding the impact of outreach on access to Higher Education for disadvantaged adult learners.

The report includes five case studies from the participating universities, all illustrating different working approaches, appealing to adult and part-time students. The report stresses that “one-size does not fit all”, and argues that universities must set ideas in their own context and develop them to suit their own adult learners’ needs.

Age should never be a barrier to learning new skills or improving your career prospects, and I am sure these case studies will help stimulate thinking and encourage all universities and colleges to consider how best to reach out to adult learners.

The OU looked at how a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) access module prepares students for the first year of a STEM degree. The University of Bristol explored community-based outreach, using taster options and targeting groups such as ex-offenders, single parent families, and refugees and asylum seekers, and providing a Foundation Year in an Arts and Humanities programme. Access courses were also examined by Birkbeck University of London, which looked specifically at the transition of its students from its Higher Educational Introductory Studies (HEIS) programme to the BSc in Social Sciences.

The University of Leeds explored the experiences of disadvantaged adult learners who have been supported by their Lifelong Learning Centre and their learning champions into and through the university. Finally, the OU illustrated the PEARL (part-time education for adults returning to learn) website, including an “advise-me” tool for signposting pathways to HE, as well as options in HE and progression through HE. 

These case studies were produced to give the whole sector real examples of the kind of intervention activities and curricula design that succeed with adult learners who require flexible support to engage with HE study.

A three-step “toolkit” has also been produced to enable institutions to evaluate their efforts and approach to encourage disadvantaged adult learners.

The project’s key recommendations to the sector are:

·         Be as ambitious as possible

·         Build confidence with small steps and/or tasters

·         Commit a budgetary amount for spending on attracting adult learners

·         Bridge the informal-formal learning divide

·         Offer clear pathways

·         Improve information and guidance directed at adult learners

The efforts to reach out to prospective adult students, many of whom will be part-time due to existing personal commitments, has become all the more pressing with the “deeply worrying” 61% decline in numbers of part-time students in HE since 2010, says lead investigator, the OU’s Dr John Butcher. “We feel there are significant implications emerging from this report. It is clear that there are individual HEIs working hard in this area, but we want to prompt much more. The sector urgently needs to reframe adult learning, not as something ‘additional’ that needs to be put on an already crowded agenda, but as a vital and central part of meeting the government’s stated objectives to widen participation in higher education.”

Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said:

“Not only do the skills and experience adult learners bring to their studies contribute greatly to a more diverse student body, but there is a clear societal and economic benefit to people succeeding in higher education – whatever stage of their life they come to it. Age should never be a barrier to learning new skills or improving your career prospects, and I am sure these case studies will help stimulate thinking and encourage all universities and colleges to consider how best to reach out to adult learners.”

It is hoped the report will provide the stimulus to universities to include credibly evaluated outreach with adult learners in Access Agreements, and in turn prompt a fuller and more inclusive interpretation of widening participation in England.

A full copy of the report is available on the OFFA website https://www.offa.org.uk/publications/analysis-data-and-progress-reports/

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