Universities need to prepare for the mature student onslaught

Higher ed is notoriously bad at attracting and accommodating mature students. Given the workforce shifts spawned by the pandemic, this needs to change, says Dilshad Sheikh

Dilshad Sheikh's avatar
19 Nov 2021
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Universities should be preparing now to be inundated with older students given workforce shifts

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Arden University

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Universities ought to do more to attract mature students. At Arden, 89 per cent of our students are mature, so we’re constantly thinking of new ways to fit education around their lifestyles. We know that the demands and costs of university put a lot of mature students off applying for a degree. We also know that mature students tend to have more complex needs than younger students. They are more likely to come from deprived areas or have family or caring responsibilities. Plus, if they are a part-time student and 28 per cent of mature undergraduate students studied part-time in 2019/2020 compared with just 3 per cent of younger undergraduates − their primary focus might not be higher education.

Mature students also usually enter higher education with a wider variety of qualifications than their younger counterparts. This gives providers the opportunity to be more flexible when it comes to admissions criteria. Grants and scholarships are all in good taste and can be a great means of getting people with different skills and backgrounds into higher education. But the main medium of assessing them for entry? An essay. To open up courses to the array of expertise and intelligence among us, universities must ensure that their methods of assessment truly capture the different skills many possess. This can be done, very simply, with more practical assessments and acceptance of professional experience. 

Over the past few years there has actually been a decline in the number of mature students. They are also more likely to drop out of their course. In 2018-19, 13.5 per cent did not continue in higher education after their first year compared with 6.7 per cent of young students.

There are, of course, several factors at play here – one being money. Mature students tend to be more debt-averse than younger students, so changes in student funding arrangements have possibly had a bigger impact on them. Huge fees and the removal of student grants and NHS bursaries will also have had an effect. On top of this, mature students are funded at the same level as other full-time undergraduate students even though they have extra financial responsibilities.

Allowing students to fit their higher education journey around their life is appealing. It can often mean they don’t have to pull their hair out to make ends meet. Offering evening classes is a good start. Allowing flexibility is even better. Giving students the option to pause their education, without having to wait until the start of the new academic year to resume, is the ideal universities should be moving towards. We need to realise that sometimes life just gets in the way.

Students – regardless of their age – will also have differing skill levels, such as in digital literacy and research. Offering courses to help them become comfortable with the basic skills needed can help make sure all students, regardless of when they venture into higher education, are equipped with the same core skills they need throughout their education and career.

Of course, we’re also at a point where mature students are needed more than ever. The job market is in the midst of an unexpected problem: there aren’t enough people to fill the masses of vacancies available.

Again, there is an abundance of reasons why this is the case. First, the pandemic forced many out of work when restrictions were in place, but this resulted in them upskilling and entering new sectors, leaving some industries with many vacancies. There’s also an increase in demand and limited supply. In 1977, there were 50 per cent fewer babies born in England and Wales than in 1964, which will also impact the workforce as that generation reaches retirement age, leaving an even bigger gap in the market than usual.

This might result in many more people wanting to shift careers, as well as motivate sectors to find enticing ways to attract and upskill potential candidates. We may even see employers wanting to fund the education of potential candidates in order to retain the talent they need to survive.

The onus is also on the government. It plays a key role in changing behaviour, from the funding available to the policies it develops. There are also moves in the regulatory environment for HEIs to develop short courses and/or micro-credentials to help mature students upskill more quickly than having to wait three years.

All these shifts vividly demonstrate the importance of embracing education at all ages and stages of life. Upskilling is a major part of progression, and we’re seeing more people than ever wanting to take better control of their careers and wondering if they’re in the right job. With a change in mindset engendered by the pandemic, people are also more actively searching for ways to look after their personal well-being. This means we’ll be seeing more and more people wanting to switch careers at different stages of their life.

With greater flexibility and with the right technology at hand, they can do exactly that. It certainly won’t be a surprise to see an influx of mature students in the coming years. Universities should be preparing for it now.

Dilshad Sheikh is dean of the Faculty of Business at Arden University, UK.


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