THE BLOG
27/10/2015 07:29 GMT | Updated 23/10/2016 06:12 BST

Why Universities Must Not Let Mature Students Down

Provision of financial advice, flexible payment options, tips on keeping living/travel costs down and similar advice can and will make a big difference to individuals thinking of becoming a mature student.

One in ten UK adults aged between 35 and 54 plan to start studying for a higher education qualification by 2018, a further 4% have already taken the plunge and enrolled on their chosen course.

Given that the half the UK population is over the age of 40, it's a sizeable group and a sizeable intention. What makes these YouGov statistics particularly encouraging, however, is considering them in the broader context of part time study trends.

In the past five years the number of part time students in higher education has fallen by 37%, the vast majority of which are classed as mature. The downward trajectory has been attributed to many factors - tuition fee hikes, the recession, a competitive jobs market. Times have been tough for mature students wanting to balance work, life and study.

So, what might have sparked increased interest in 'later life learning'? Growing confidence in the UK's economic outlook will certainly be a major reason.

The jobs market has improved and as such employee mentality inevitably shifts from grateful acceptance to questioning ambition. It's now a lot safer to ask "am I really in the right role and am I getting paid the right salary?"

Indeed, it seems this is a question that would-be mature students are very likely to pose. The same YouGov poll, commissioned by Arden University, also found that only a third of 45-54 year olds are actually happy with their career and qualifications.

Studying for a degree or a masters is certainly a great way to get ahead, make a change and, in many instances, boost earnings significantly. For example, a 45 year old opting to study for a marketing degree could earn £225,000 more over the span of their future career.

Coming out of recession, it is not that surprising to learn that many over the age of 35 have a renewed enthusiasm for - and intention to - get that degree or masters that they may previously have put off or discounted.

I do, however, have concerns. Fantastic though it is to hear that a large swathe of over 35s intend to venture into higher education - intention does not always lead to enrolment. The road to unfulfilled ambition is paved with good intentions.

Mature students have some very specific needs which academia needs to be aware of and accommodate to make sure opportunities aren't wasted.

Three quarters of mature students work part or full-time. Flexibility and accessibility is therefore a key issue. If universities are closed to developing solutions that enable students to work outside "the nine to five", they are effectively closed to mature students. The demand is quite clearly there from this group - supply has to match the ambition.

As the VC and CEO of a university that specialises in online distance learning, I am naturally going to signpost the benefits of this particular study route. And I'm not alone. Many universities have invested, quite rightly, in developing excellent online courses.

However, truly flexible learning has to offer much more. Access to tutors, student support (academic and pastoral), opportunities for interaction and peer-to-peer engagement are just a few examples. In fact, in a report by the NUS into mature students and their academic experience, those students identified as most likely to consider leaving their course were those who felt they hadn't received additional support in areas such as study skills.

Improving course accessibility is never simply a case of shifting an existing degree or masters' curriculum online. It's the full package that it important.

Funding is another tricky area. There is a false assumption that mature students - by the fact that they are often in full or part time employment - can more easily afford to study. They simply aren't in the same boat as impoverished 18/19 year olds right? Wrong. In many ways this group is more likely to struggle. Mortgage payments, childcare costs, and no 'bank of mum and dad' to fall back on; it's a stretch, and one of the reasons the mature students are very focussed on the ROI of their study decisions.

While changes a few years back meant part time/online students received improved rights and access to tuition fee loans, many remain unaware of this fact because communications with this age group around funding is often lacking.

Problematically though, while mature students taking their first steps into higher education can access government funding to cover tuition fees - those who already hold an HE qualification may struggle to receive further support (though grants around housing and childcare are available).

While universities may not be able to do much about this specific issue, financial support is about more than access to loans.

Provision of financial advice, flexible payment options, tips on keeping living/travel costs down and similar advice can and will make a big difference to individuals thinking of becoming a mature student.

All higher education providers have a responsibility to make sure anyone with an ambition to learn can achieve their goals, irrespective of age. It's a responsibility I take very seriously, which is why Arden University will certainly be doing all it can to help convert one in ten intentions to study, into graduations.