21/05/2013 09:35 BST | Updated 19/07/2013 06:12 BST

Experience Counts: Do People Really Understand They Can Access Higher Education?

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This week is Adult Learners Week - a week dedicated to celebrating the benefits of lifelong learning, and to educating would-be mature students about the options open to them.

Naturally it is a cause I wholly support, after all 76% of our students at RDI are over 25. But when it comes to adult learners making their aspirations a reality, there is a problem. People just don't realise how qualified they already are.

You see, a key factor that holds many potential adult learners back when considering pursuing a new qualification is that they don't appreciate that there is value in experience. They look at what formal academic qualifications they hold and assume that these - and these alone - dictate the academic options open to them in terms of entry level.

Individuals, for example, who may hold A Levels but not a previous degree qualification, assume they are inadmissible for a Masters degree course; similarly, those who left school with GCSEs but no A Levels think a degree course is not an option without initial further study.

But the truth is that in many cases these students are eligible for such courses because their work history and experience is taken into account.

Of course, assessment will always be on a case-by-case basis but as an example, an individual that holds A Levels and can demonstrate over five years' experience in a senior role that relates to their chosen subject, could indeed by eligible for a Masters course. And just to put this into perspective, 40% of RDI applicants between February and May this year had over five years' relevant work experience.

This 'hidden secret' of adult learner eligibility doesn't just relate to distance learning - it is a fact that applies to the wider higher education community.

But the reason it sits so well with distance learning in particular is that students are able to continue in the very profession/role that makes them eligible to study in the first place. They don't need to 'step off the ladder'.

And this is hugely important - not just in career progression terms but also financially. The current economic climate means that gaining further qualifications to advance at work, or simply to stand out from the crowd in an over-populated job market, is more appealing than ever. Yet a recent report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed that the number of part-time and mature students has fallen by 40% since 2010-11 - a change closely attributed to tuition fee hikes.

Older students simply have greater financial responsibilities than younger learners. Mortgage payment, childcare, the costs add up - so being able to retain an income while studying is critical. The flexibility offered by distance learning allows for that. It builds education around life, rather than fitting life around education.

So, this Adult Learners' Week, I would urge those looking into gaining additional qualifications to do two things - look at what you've already achieved in your career and at how you want education to work for you. Simply taking stock of these points could take you in a very interesting and very productive direction.