Past their learn-by date?

February 5, 1999

Britain's mature students are falling victim to a culture of ageism, writes Linda McGowan.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions System reports a 1.8 per cent drop in the number of applications to universities compared with this time last year. But the number of applicants aged 25 and over is down a staggering 10 per cent.

Perhaps most worrying for me is how the falling application rate is particularly marked in the North of England, Scotland, and in inner cities. Yet the shires and parts of southern England report an increase in university applications. Surely a wider socio-economic picture is revealed here - one in which poorer, older students, are being deterred from entering higher education?

In 1994, the mature students' allowance was withdrawn. Cuts to maintenance grants followed and then came the introduction of tuition fees. Mature students already burdened with families, mortgages and worries about employment prospects, now have to think even harder before entering university. Sadly, many have decided the risk is too great. In addition to the application figures, we have anecdotal evidence to suggest that a large proportion of students who drop out in the second term are older students struggling financially.

Mature students have always enriched university life, but I worry that we are becoming victims of an ageist society. At 50, I am horrified that the government appears to have set the criterion that life (or at least educational life) ends at 54 - this despite its much-heralded flagship education policy, "BLife Long Learning".

Until this year, student loans were never an option for over 50s. But now education secretary David Blunkett and the Department for Education and Employment have extended the age limit for eligibility to 54. There is, however, a catch - applicants have to show that they "intend to return to employment", even though this is not a hoop younger applicants are requested to jump through.

In my experience, many over 50s (particularly women) from lower socio-economic backgrounds, having brought up a family and struggled for years in low-paid work, choose this time in their life to find something for themselves - often a place at university or college. Are we now to practise social exclusion by handing these would-be students a ludicrous, ageist cut-off point, typical of this government?

There seems to be no understanding of mature students' needs nor any desire to extend a helping hand to put us on an equal footing with younger entrants. Some universities include anti-ageism clauses within their equal opportunities policies, but many do not. Even the National Union of Students does not include age in its equal opportunities statement.

London Transport recently launched a student travel card that excludes those over 24. In a letter to campaigners from the University of East London, who want the card to be available to all students, LT said: "Our information indicates that over the age of 24 rather more, though I agree not all, students are in well-paid employment (and) receiving financial help from employers."

As we move towards the millennium, we are told that we will have "a learning community that is a caring community, making room for slow learners and late developers". Mr Blunkett has already acknowledged "mistakes with mature students". Should I get out my knitting and Horlicks, or can I look forward to real life-long learning and a funding system free of ageist attitudes?

Linda McGowan is vice-president of the Mature Students Union.

* Do you think government policy is deterring mature students? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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