Ask the panel

February 16, 2007

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

'The student union at my university runs a mature students' society. The society president is concerned that this name may no longer be appropriate in the light of the new age equality legislation. What advice can you give?'

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "While reference to the adjective 'mature' would generally not be advisable in relation to the wording of a job description or an advertisement for a post, the situation when it comes to using the term to describe a group of students is rather different.

"The term has a long currency in higher education and has a specific meaning in certain higher-education contexts - the Higher Education Statistics Agency, for example, defines any student over 21 as a 'mature student'.

"Consideration of context is really what matters. In this situation, where the term is being used to describe the purpose of a society that is for a specific group of students, and the intended group would themselves use that term to describe themselves, then we do not see that there is any immediate need to change the title.

"While you could argue that the term is based on two stereotypical assumptions - that with age comes maturity and that being a student means you are younger, not older - it is a well established term in higher education that, as far as we are aware to date, does not cause offence to either younger or older students, as it is not seen as carrying negative connotations for either group.

"We do not think that you need to change the name of the society.

"What you would need to do is to make sure that the mission statement and the regulations of the society mean that any students of any age sympathetic to the aims of the society should be free to join it.

"In addition, any advertising of events should clearly communicate that students of all ages with an interest are welcome.

"The National Union of Students runs a Mature Students' Campaign and is proposing to have a mature students' officer with full voting rights on the national executive committee to ensure proper and democratic representation of mature student issues in future within the NUS.

"Although the average age of students in higher education is increasing, and in some higher education institutions there are significant groups of older students, older students are generally still significantly under-represented in higher education as a whole. Changing the name of mature students' societies now could lower the profile of issues concerning mature students, which arguably actually require some positive action attention."

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "At first glance, it would appear that there is not an issue here, as the Age Regulations only cover employment and training and not goods and services.

"Logically, the student union would be subject to them only if it were acting as an employer.

"However, owing to the complex and widely differing inter-relationships between student unions and colleges and universities, it is possible that the university might be, in some cases, responsible for the actions of the student union.

"As to whether it is permissible to use the word 'mature', the answer is that nobody knows for sure, as there is no case law. However, it seems highly likely that this term is acceptable as long as it is not linked to a specific age requirement.

"In relation to taking positive action for older students, the university would probably have little difficulty justifying this on the grounds that they are a minority group who need specific types of support.

"As we saw recently in relation to Christian Union societies, the NUS has a policy that all student societies should be open to all students.

"But just as it is hard to imagine that many non-Christians would choose to join the Christian Union, so it seems unlikely that many 18-year-olds would choose to join the Mature Students' Society."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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