Mature approach steadily gains ground

November 25, 1994

The experience of mature students in the 1990s has changed radically from that of previous decades. It is now a misnomer to talk about "non-traditional" students, quite simply because in some universities it is the 18 to 21- year-olds who are in a minority.

Between 1982 and 1992 the number of mature home first-year students in universities, polytechnics and colleges more than doubled from 139,000 to 319,000.

According to a statistical bulletin from the Department for Education released last month, in 1992 more mature students (that is students over 21) entered higher education than young students for the first time.

These students are still clustered in institutions in the former polytechnic sector. While 18 to 21- year-olds still dominate Oxford University, its neighbour, Oxford Brookes University, is typical of the sort of institution that has attracted mature students.

In 1992 nearly half of Oxford Brookes University students were mature, with 30 per cent over 25. Pete Harris, Rosemary Strawson and Paul Randell are all mature students who decided to do a degree when the job market shrank in the early 1990s.

This change may have worrying implications for higher education as the recession ends. But Barry Carter, who is responsible for the admission of mature students, has noticed no let-up in applications. The university slightly overshot its target number for student admissions this year, with the social sciences proving particularly popular.

Paul Randell is studying geology. He, like the other two students interviewed, has worked in both term time and holidays to make ends meet. A former private detective, he decided to do a degree when he lost his job. He still manages to do some work, occasionally going on special assignments to Holland and Scandinavia.

He has three children and his wife is a teacher on maternity leave. He is now in his third year and has taken out student loans -- the full amount over all his three years as a student. He applied for an access fund grant and received Pounds 350. He says this helped, but clearly did not go far. His grant is just under Pounds 3,000.

In order to fit in his responsibilities towards his family and his part-time work and his studying, he has often had to go with just three or four hours sleep a night. "I can work like that for just three or four weeks, and then I collapse," he says.

Pete Harris has no dependants, but has still found it necessary to work one day a week to make ends meet. He works for the university's computer department and his degree is in computing and micro-electronics.

His partner supports him to some extent. "If I had no one I would be living in a horrible shared house, and would not be able to visit my parents at Christmas. I would have managed -- but my quality of life would have been much poorer."

He has coped with the pressure on computer terminals by buying his own. He is thoroughly enjoying the course, but is sometimes criticised by lecturers for giving "real world" answers to problems. "Because I have worked I don't approach a problem as theoretically as I might, I tend to patch things together so that they work, without going back to first principles," he says.

Rosemary Strawson is in the second year of her degree and working as a waitress to support herself. She and Mr Randell have revived the mature student society.

Unlike Mr Randell and Mr Harris, she is on a course which is dominated by 19 to 21-year-olds, so she particularly values being able to talk to "like-minded" people. She enjoys studying, but also finds the financial and work pressures "stressful" and thinks the university could do more in the way of advising students.

Jim Pye is the mature students' advisor at the university. He offers counselling rather than financial advice -- largely because the student union does this so well.

He finds that most mature students come to him because they have learning difficulties that have not been dealt with early enough, and have turned into a crisis. Other students have family difficulties.

For some the experience of higher education has alienated them from their partners, who suddenly start to feel left behind. For others, practical problems such as finding childminders become overwhelming.

Liz Price, who is a senior lecturer in the department of hotel and catering management and also on the university's Equal Opportunities Group, says that the university has a nursery with 48 places for two to five-year-olds. It is looking at setting up a network of childminders who students can use -- a cheaper way of helping them out.

The main message from the three students is that although they are thoroughly enjoying their studies, it was the recession that forced them into university. They do not feel like "non-traditional" students, but they do feel poor.

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