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Mature students: a silent or silenced voice?

  • 21 August 2021
  • By Cath Brown

This week we have been running, in partnership with FE News, a selection of chapters from our recently released report, ‘What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say‘, edited by HEPI’s Policy Officer, Michael Natzler. Today’s piece is by Cath Brown, former President of the Open University Students Association. Cath is on Twitter @NotoriousCath.

Undergraduate students become officially ‘mature’ if they commence their course aged 21 or over; for postgraduates it is over the age of 25. Currently 39 per cent of undergraduate entrants and 50 per cent of postgraduates are mature at UK universities.

Despite this, there remains a prevalent ‘young student’ narrative in society, with mature students remaining comparatively unseen and unheard. How can this be explained and addressed?

Who are they?

It is not surprising that mature learners are more likely to have family or caring responsibilities, have a disability or come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Table 1 illustrates that with increasing age, mature students are more likely to be Black and female.

Table 1. Percentage of total acceptances through UCAS by age group for mature applicants who are Black or female.

How and where do they study?

A significant proportion of mature students are also ‘non-traditional’ in other ways.

The proportion of mature students studying part-time is over five times that of young students, for both undergraduates and postgraduates. A fifth of mature undergraduates study with the Open University. Distance learners are the ultimate unseen students: they are not seen on campus, they rarely show any markers of student identity and they do not live in student accommodation.

Mature students are far from uniformly distributed across qualifications or providers. Those who applied via UCAS reportedly favoured lower-tariff providers and a smaller range of courses. By far the most popular are Education and Subjects Allied to Medicine. Students studying for Level 4 or 5 qualifications are also disproportionately mature (79 per cent).

Mature students also have less good outcomes, are more likely to drop out and, when full-time, they gain fewer higher classification degrees than young students.

Mature students and the National Student Survey (NSS)

The NSS is admittedly an imperfect instrument, but its role in the student voice cannot be ignored.

Although collective data is not released for mature students, given that 89 per cent of part-time students are mature, part-time vs full-time is a reasonable proxy.

The aggregated data show a stark difference in response rate – 70.4 per cent for full-time but 55.9 per cent for part-time. This does not tell the full story: the exclusion of subject areas and providers that fail to reach the 50 per cent threshold will tend to disenfranchise courses with many part-timers as they are less likely to be the ‘beneficiaries’ of on-campus NSS drives. One example is the Open University having narrowly missed the inclusion threshold in 2020, despite the raw numbers responding being higher than those at many included institutions.

Despite this incompleteness, the responses of part-time learners are telling. Table 2 shows the relevant responses.

Table 2: NSS Responses of full- and part-time students on key areas.

‘Learning community’ is included as the best proxy for a sense of belonging. Belonging underpins effective student voice. The very marked differences in this measure would alone hint not all is well. It is also apparent the responding part-timers are less positive about their student union’s academic representation and student voice in general.

Combining the notoriously low turnout for students’ union elections with the NSS data might feed into the hostile response to students’ unions and the Government’s allegations of ‘niche activism’. The huge efforts put in by sabbatical officers, working long hours on low pay to look out for their members, most certainly do not deserve this condemnation.

But something is not working.

What is going on?

Why are mature learners not heard? It is a complex picture.

Practicalities are crucial. Mature learners are typically time-poor, whether due to family or caring duties, fulltime employment or the demanding and time-consuming placements on the medically-related courses so popular with this cohort. Part-timers, in particular, are more likely to have focused brief visits to campus. Fitting in their studies is a juggling act; ‘inessentials’ will not merit time or mental resources. So anything perceived as peripheral, even giving basic feedback, is likely to suffer.

But even if the practical issues were dealt with, how far do mature learners feel motivated and empowered to use their voices?

The purpose of feedback is largely to improve things for the future. Offering feedback requires identifying with the institution – a sense of belonging. This concept is difficult to quantify and perhaps even more demanding to develop purposefully, but that does not render it any less crucial.

Not only can being in a less visible group in an institution lead students to feel their contribution will not be valued by the institution, but also that it is not in itself valuable. It is not uncommon to hear mature students commenting along the lines ‘Get the young ones involved – they are who the university should hear from’ or ‘I am too distant from the normal students’. There is also some evidence of differences by subject, with healthcare students (many of whom are mature) exhibiting less sense of belonging.

One powerful student voice mechanism is feeding into student representatives, or indeed becoming a representative. In many institutions, candidates for these roles are typically young students rather than mature students and those getting involved are often in informal networks with existing ‘insiders’. While representatives may be very willing to hear and amplify the voices of students in different demographics, that does not alone remove perceived barriers.

A further issue is the perceived value of student voice. Incentivising completion of the National Student Survey (NSS) or course questionnaires is common; this may seem an obvious short-term strategy but it is an established psychological phenomenon that incentivisation tends to reduce perceived intrinsic value.

Furthermore, if the student voice becomes a matter of delivering quotable statistics, students will understandably feel their institution aims to profit from their labour rather than genuinely wishing to listen to them. The mature student who already feels somewhat ‘othered’ is unlikely to want to be crowded into a hall with their younger peers to do what feels like a tick-box survey in return for pizza.

What can be done?

The high proportion of mature students who are ‘non-traditional’ in other respects suggests that solutions to their voices may pay dividends with other missing voices too.

There is a need to move away from a deficit model which sees mature students in terms of the issues or difficulties they have. Mature students have life experiences they can bring to the university, for example their ability to prioritise and manage their time are often extremely well honed by necessity. These should be actively valued. The sheer courage of tackling studying when you are atypical should be celebrated.

A starting point is a ‘Universal Design for Student Voice’, in which approaches to encourage and facilitate marginalised voices are embedded right at the start, rather than as a bolton to a mechanism focused on young full-timers. As a starting point, this requires flexible and remote opportunities as the default.

Many students’ unions are rightly aiming to increase the diversity of the students who engage with them, and vital as this is, it is not necessarily going to be a quick win. So, without undermining their students’ unions, universities need to explore additional mechanisms for students to use their voices. If mature students see their feedback valued by the university, that may itself encourage them to consider a more formal role.

University staff need to appreciate that encouraging the voice of non-traditional students may require different approaches. If diversity is to be increased, and mature students empowered to engage, then barriers need to be removed. Even students’ unions officers may find university governance impenetrable at times and have concerns about power imbalances, as Eve Alcock outlines in this collection. How much worse are these issues for non-traditional students? Routes in, other than formal and potentially intimidating ones, need to be developed.

This does not mean staff being patronising or making ‘therethere’ noises, but it does entail openness and treating students with respect, as fellow adults. This author had one experience of being blatantly patronised and laughed it off. For a less confident mature student, it could mean their first foray into using their voice was their last.

Moving student voice past the simple ‘feedback’ model towards real partnership and valuing experience and insight could pay dividends. And be prepared to pay students for their labour – not with pizza, but on a financial basis, as consultants. For mature students in particular, time is money.

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