Study of Mature Student Participation in Higher Education

By Steven Galvin - Last update


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The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has just published its Study of Mature Student Participation in Higher Education. In summary the report demonstrates that financial barriers, family commitments and a lack of flexible study options are key components in the low numbers of mature students currently participating in higher education.

Study of Mature Student Participation in Higher Education

Here we’ll cover the main outcomes of the study. 

Levels of educational attainment

The study found that overall, 40% of the Irish population in 2019 aged 15-64 years have achieved a third-level qualification. This figure marks an increase of 5% since 2011.

The National Access Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education (NAP) identified underrepresentation in higher education by certain groups namely persons from disadvantaged areas, Irish Travellers, persons with a disability and lone parents. These four NAP target groups recorded lower educational attainment levels than the national average. 

Trends in mature student participation

In 2010/11 the rate of participation of mature students in higher education rose to a peak of 16%. This figure has decreased year on year since falling to 8% in 2108/19. The report suggests that these figures may have been impacted by levels of employment, concluding that “the availability of employment opportunities may have an impact on the numbers of mature students participating in higher education.” 

Over half of all mature students attend an institute of technology and in 2018/19 6.8% of new entrants in universities were mature students, compared with 12.3% in colleges and institutes of technology. HEA data shows that in 2019/20 students aged 24+ made up 12% of full-time student enrolments and 87% of part-time students in higher education.

Barriers and challenges

Financial costs and family/work responsibilities were reported as being the two biggest barriers to participation in higher education. Financial cost was referenced by almost  50% of respondents. 

Funding supports

The report noted a wide range of funding support available to mature students, in particular the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant and the Back to Education Allowance (BTEA). 48% of mature students have positive views on SUSI grants. Other funding support references  Free Fees Initiative, Springboard+, Part-Time Education Option and National Childcare Scheme and targeted funding aimed at certain NAP groups, such as the Fund for Students with Disabilities.

Despite the various supports available the report states that the “research evidence indicates that financial barriers were seen as an important obstacle by mature students… For a significant minority of respondents across the NAP target groups, financial supports were perceived as working poorly or very poorly.” 

The number of refusals of SUSI grant awards is higher for mature students than for other students. 

Supporting structures 

Apart from funding supports and changes to delivery options ,the report noted three main methods of increasing participation among mature and other students: 

In-reach:  actions by HEIs to create new ways for students to access existing programmes;

Outreach: proactive efforts to widen participation and create partnerships with wider community; 

Flexibility: providing education in locations, modes and at times that best suit students

Models of delivery

The report suggested that changes to the models of education delivery could be effective in assisting mature students overcome barriers to participation in higher education. Flexible timetables and blended distance/in-person learning that fit the needs of learners were two changes that were recommended.  Flexibility is the key issue here and runs across the board when it comes to facilitating mature students. 

Recommendations

The Study of Mature Student Participation in Higher Education report laid out in its recommendations for the future to facilitate Mature Student participation in Higher Education. 

  1. Focus access targets and supports on disadvantaged communities 
  2. Promote and fund part-time learning 
  3. Greater provision of flexible learning opportunities 
  4. Institution-level support for mature students should continue 
  5. Strong national provision of guidance and support 
  6. Increase provision of foundation/bridging courses 
  7. Consider ways to secure greater involvement by communities and employers for NAP groups 
  8. Seamless pathways between FET and HE should be developed
  9. Improve data availability

These recommendations are aimed at supporting greater participation by mature students in higher education in Ireland, particularly those from disadvantaged communities.


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Steven Galvin

The Growth of Lifelong Learning Among Adults in Ireland
2021 IFTA Film & Drama Awards


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