Don't ignore mature majority

January 23, 2003

Mature students are patronised by colleges, dismissed by Hodge and passed over by the NUS, says Alan Coleman

The government's plans for student funding and widening participation appear to have ignored one crucial factor - the students it intends to burden with its proposals. Some 60 per cent of these are classified as mature but many of the government's initiatives appear to ignore this group.

The quality of life for the mature student has been going downhill since the removal of the mature students' grant about ten years ago. This funding helped address vital home and family needs, but its passing went largely unnoticed and unchallenged by the National Union of Students.

Today, with the student loan rarely sufficient to cover accommodation in halls of residence for a single student, the mature student is unable to cover home and family costs. The level of support provided to them does not reach that enjoyed by jobseekers, who receive the additional support of housing and council tax benefits.

Measures such as the new Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for under 19s and the recent attack on students as layabouts who waste taxpayers' money raise concerns that the government is merely trying to boost its image at the expense of the majority of students.

Under-19s are more likely to continue their education than mature students, and many mature students see EMAs as a way of keeping up numbers in colleges so that the government can claim to be meeting its 50 per cent participation target.

The situation is not helped by the NUS, which holds its mature students' conference this weekend. It is convinced that the level of "oppression" suffered by "old people" does not warrant the allocation of time and resources to support them. Its leaders prefer to concentrate on those students who will vote them back into office. College students' unions perceive mature students as undeserving of their attention because they do not contribute to student life due to external commitments. This creates a vicious circle, where mature students feel that the student union does not provide any service for them.

And college staff are not as aware of mature students' needs as they could be. Many colleges ignore the experience that older students bring.

Traditional tutor-student interaction can be perceived as downright patronising.

Many mature students believe that colleges, especially within the further education sector, are apprehensive about upsetting the "balance of power" if they allow mature students to have an input.

Meanwhile, education minister Margaret Hodge's recent attack on non-vocational qualifications makes a mockery of her commitment to lifelong learning. Learning for learning's sake is central to the philosophy of a mature student. If this is the standpoint of the one member of the government who should be working on behalf of mature students, what can we hope for from government initiatives?

The needs of the mature student are based on work, family and other home commitments and they require sympathetic consideration. If the government is committed to education for all, then it has to address the funding requirements of all students and this can be achieved only if colleges and the NUS treat mature students as students and not just business statistics.

Alan Coleman is a national communications officer for the Mature Students' Union and a part-time forensic science student at South East Essex College. He read law at the University of East London after 17 years in the Royal Navy.

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