Fear of rising costs is blamed for deterring mature students from university. THES investigates.
A long-term study of the pioneering Scottish Wider Access Programme has found a "mismatch of culture" between SWAP courses and higher education in terms of the support students receive.
SWAP was launched in 1988 as a one-year course to provide adults an alternative route into higher education. It targets traditionally under-represented groups, such as women, unskilled workers, single parents and ethnic minorities, and guarantees a higher education place for those who successfully complete the course.
The four-year study by Janet Powney and Stuart Hall of the Scottish Council for Research in Education, funded by the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department and building on an earlier study, found most students surveyed were overwhelmingly positive about SWAP courses.
But there were serious criticisms of higher education. Most students said their institution did not acknowledge that they had been access entrants. As well as coping with academic work, most had heavy financial and family responsibilities and other personal difficulties such as illness.
Just over half had academic problems at some stage, while just over a third reported difficulties such as library opening hours conflicting with childcare.
"My biggest concern is that tutors cannot see when you are struggling," one student said. "There is no emotional support - they never seem to get to know you as a person. They set deadlines and never explore why you may miss them. They are not very sensitive, especially when they are from different backgrounds."
Dr Powney said: "If you allow people in, you have to meet their needs. Access students are used to very explicit goals and direction in their programmes. That does not mean they are spoon-fed."
She does not accept the argument that sustained support is impossible.
"It is a waste of resources, staff time and people's lives for them to go into higher education and then fail," she said.
Scottish Access Students in Higher Education is published by the Scottish Council for Research in Education, 15 St John Street, Edinburgh EH8 8JR, 0131 557 2944, price Pounds 10.