Factors at play in falling applications

February 20, 1998

THE non-appearance of promised plans for lifelong learning reflects government failure to address the pressing needs of older unemployed graduates, among whose ranks I number. This delay is particularly alarming when you report that 16 per cent of those graduating aged 40 to 49 are unemployed six months later.

Demographic and employment trends mean that the recruitment of mature students is vital to the future of universities, as well as other further education institutions. But lack of government funding and employers' recruitment practices are not the only reasons why universities are not yet meeting this need.

From my experience of trying to retrain by undertaking a postgraduate course in occupational psychology at 40, and from a subsequent "inside" view in a research position, universities themselves fall a long way short in their attitudes towards older students and graduates. The employment policies of universities themselves are a key reason for this failing.

Universities almost invariably describe themselves as equal opportunities employers. Yet university departments are subject to financial pressures to appoint at the bottom of incremental scales, thus discriminating against older applicants with relevant experience beyond their university qualifications.

The increasing prevalence of fixed-term contracts is also discriminatory, as is the widespread use of early retirement to reduce costs. Such practices give a particularly bad message to students retraining after being out of work, who naturally hope above all that a graduate qualification will provide security of employment.

When universities themselves discriminate against older workers, they cannot blame other employers for failing to offer jobs to mature graduates.

F. R. Stansfield Coppergate, Canterbury

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