Are mature students an endangered species?

Last week, UCAS published its final end-of-cycle data on full-time higher education applications and acceptances for 2012. They showed, as expected, that there was a significant drop in the number of full-time students going to British universities in 2012. Beyond this, there was little agreement among commentators and in the media as to what the figures showed or how alarmed we should be by them.

Overall, there was a fall of 27,210 – or 5.5 per cent – in the number of people accepted for places at UK institutions, a fall largely attributable to the rise in the tuition fee cap at English universities from £3,375 to £9,000 (and to the spike this caused in the previous year’s figures). In England, acceptances fell from 415,069 in 2011 to 388,796 in 2012 – a 6.3 per cent drop – while in Wales numbers fell from 26,249 to 24,128 (an 8.1 per cent drop). Both reductions were driven by a decrease in acceptances for students domiciled in England. Scotland and Northern Ireland both saw increases in acceptances, by 1.9 per cent and 5.2 per cent, respectively.

Some coverage of the UCAS figures quoted a 13 per cent (51,000) fall in acceptances in England (and, less frequently, a 12 per cent drop in Wales). This figure is for acceptances by academic year of entry rather than for acceptances by UCAS cycle, which includes students who are accepted but who chose to defer entry. There was a large reduction in deferred acceptances in the 2011 cycle – with students reluctant to enter in 2012 under the new fees regime – with a return to more typical levels of deferral in 2012. The result of this was to produce a spike in numbers for 2011 and to deepen the fall in acceptances for the 2012-13 academic cycle, producing the apparent discrepancy with UCAS’s figure of a 6.3 per cent drop for England. Compared to the 2010-11 academic year, 2012-13 acceptances were eight per cent lower for England and seven per cent lower for Wales.

UCAS provides a breakdown of applicants by age group, showing that, in the UK, there has been a 4.7 per cent fall in accepted applicants aged 25 and over since 2011, compared to a 5.4 per cent drop for people aged 20 and under and a 7.1 per cent drop for people aged between 21 and 24. These figures give no special cause for concern with regard to numbers of mature students, previously reported to be in particular decline. But they do not tell the whole story and it is worth digging a little deeper to get a sense of some of the real trends here – trends which suggest that while numbers of younger students are holding up pretty well (there is, in fact, quite a bit of good news here for ministers) there is a sharp and ongoing dip in the numbers of mature students in the HE system.

In comparing 2012 figures with those for the previous year we need to bear in mind the considerable spike in applications among young people we saw in 2011, as students hurried to avoid the near tripling of tuition fees. This spike helped disguise what was a fairly hefty drop in mature student acceptances last year. In England, accepted applications for people aged 20 and under increased by 10,205, from 314,049 in 2010 to 324,254 in 2011. This represented a 3.2 per cent increase over a period when figures for 21 to 24 year olds, 25 to 39 year olds, and people aged 40 and above all declined (by 4.0, 6.6 and 8.2 per cent, respectively). The number of acceptances for people aged 20 and under fell to 304,277 in 2012, a 6.2 per cent drop on 2011. However, if we compare the numbers with 2010 we see a more modest fall of 9,772, or 3.1 per cent.

Compare this to figures for older students. Between 2010 and 2012 the number of people aged between 21 and 24 accepted into an HEI fell by 12.1 per cent, with similarly significant falls of 12.3 per cent for people aged between 21 and 39 and 10.2 per cent for people aged 40 and above. This is a worrying fall, a sign that it is older students who are faring the worst in terms of falling intake. The latest figures for all applicants for autumn 2013 show a further overall fall of 6.3 per cent, suggesting the decline may be more than the inevitable fluctuation caused by the introduction of a new system. The reduction is likely to be compounded by a perhaps steeper decline in part-time student numbers. Institutions have been reporting significant declines in the number of people wishing to study part-time since the introduction of tuition fee loans for part-time students in 2012.

Given these figures it is not surprising to see the biggest hit being taken by some of the UK’s newest universities, which typically take a more innovative approach to widening participation and tend to include more mature and locally based students among their populations. UCAS’s figures show that London Metropolitan University fared the worst, accepting 3,100 fewer students, a drop of 43 per cent compared to 2011. Numbers fell by between a quarter and a fifth at Bolton, East London, Greenwich, Leeds Metropolitan and University Campus Suffolk, while 10 of the 24 members of the Russell Group also saw a decline in acceptances.

There is little sign that numbers are recovering, with mature students continuing to lose out. Does it matter that mature student numbers are in decline, when recruitment of younger students is holding up? I think it does, for a number of reasons. First of all, as many tutors and vice-chancellors will confirm, mature students make a really significant contribution to the intellectual lives of their institutions. They bring a commitment and determination to their studies, born of the sacrifices full-time study usually implies for older people, together with often rich life experience and freshness of perspective.

Second, mature students are often from non-traditional backgrounds and their recruitment contributes to efforts to promote social mobility and combat social exclusion. Never too late to learn, a report on mature students in HE, published by Million+ and the NUS, found that, compared to young students, mature students are more likely to have non-traditional qualifications, to be from black and minority ethnic groups and to have known disabilities. A failure to reverse the decline in mature student admissions would be a significant blow to government efforts to widen access to higher education. And third, the skills mature students gain are economically useful, something we cannot afford to overlook in a society that is ageing. Creating opportunities for people to access education at the key points of transition in their lives is going to be increasingly important.

There was positive, if overdue, recognition of the need ‘to understand better the HE experience of part-time and mature students’, in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England earlier this month. However, as this analysis shows, the decline in mature and part-time student numbers needs to be addressed as a priority. It is disappointing to see this issue – so critical in terms of both social mobility and economic growth (both picked out as priorities in the letter) – left on the sidelines once again. The letter confirms that widening access to higher education remains a strategic priority for government and calls for an injection of ‘pace and rigour’ in progress in widening access. This is certainly welcome, but little will come of these good intentions if the crisis in recruitment of mature and part-time students continues to be overlooked.

This post was originally published here

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