Policy Recommendations from Bridge Group Summit on Mature Students in Higher Education

On 19 March, the Bridge Group convened a summit to address the dramatic fall in the participation of mature students in higher education. Our expert panellists were: Professor Claire Callender (Birkbeck and UCL), Laura Burley (Head of Government and External Affairs, The OU), and Chris Millward (Director for Fair Access and Participation, OfS). Amongst our attendees were senior leaders and experienced practitioners from across the country who share an interest in understanding the barriers to participation amongst mature learners and influencing policy to promote change.

Our discussion focused primarily on the dramatic fall in participation amongst part-time students, particularly since the 2012 funding forms, and the urgency of reform in a number of areas, such as student finance and target-setting for institutions. But it was also evident that collective and concerted action was required from government and the sector to rejuvenate the market in flexible study. More needs to be done to increase incentives for institutions to provide opportunities for part-time study, and to improve information and guidance for prospective students to help them make informed decisions and navigate the system.

While promoting access dominated our discussion, we also considered the challenge of improving retention and graduate success amongst mature students. For even when mature students do participate in higher education, they are more likely to drop-out than young students and have weaker outcomes. The heterogeneity of this group of students can pose challenges for institutions in devising interventions and providing support. But increasing data gathering and building knowledge of students’ experience is vital to improve their outcomes.

Panellists and attendees variously stressed the significance of part-time study opportunities for economic growth. And, for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, the availability of opportunities to re-skill and upskill is of paramount importance to improve life chances.

Amongst the policy recommendations derived from the summit are:

  • Reforming the student funding system to provide maintenance and tuition fee grants rather than loans to mature students to reduce the up-front costs of study.
  • Increase incentives for higher education institutions to provide a market in flexible study, such as by setting national targets for mature participation.
  • Improve data gathering to improve understanding of mature student participation in higher education, in particular, by introducing measures to monitor social mobility. POLAR is not an applicable measure for mature students.

You can read a summary of our discussion and a detailed list of recommendations here.