Despite a wealth of reports and studies on the importance of lifelong learning and the need for professional development and reskilling, the focus of most higher education institutions is still firmly on traditional full-time campus programmes aimed at young students. Mature students studying part-time and mostly online are generally peripheral and invisible to the institution's core business. A new report from HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) in the UK, Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners, raises this issue and gives a voice to these unheard students. There has been a dramatic reduction in the numbers of mature students studying in England over the past 5 years and even though the trend isn't completely shared by the other nations of the UK there is a need for a new approach. Higher university fees in England and Wales have certainly excluded applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However it is not simply an issue of high fees. A similar trend is visible even here in Sweden where there are no fees, but a policy decision to focus on traditional campus degree programmes has led to a drop in the number of online courses available to mature students.
Of course there are open universities in many countries around the world who address this issue and offer flexible higher education to this important segment, but since demand is growing we need more institutions to widen their scope. Governments seldom make significant investments in lifelong learning and universities are still primarily research institutions with an attractive campus as their physical presence in the community. Say the word student and most people think of young people between 18 - 23 who study full-time on campus and this image is reflected in the imagery of practically every university's website. However, for most mature students full-time campus study is simply not an option. You cannot just give up your work and move your family to a campus city. The vast majority of mature students study part-time and the report outlines many of the barriers that they have to overcome. To understand this target group universities need to understand that mature part-time students have a different profile from full-time campus students:
- They do not identify themselves primarily as students. Their identities as parents or professionals are much stronger and as a result their ties to the institution where they study are much weaker than traditional students.
- They are interested in finding a course that is flexible and fits their existing lifestyle and are less interested in which institution provides it.
- They tend not to join student unions and their voice is seldom heard on faculty boards and committees.
- Because of the difficulties of managing part-time study, work and family commitments many mature students have to be very adaptive and creative to complete their studies. The existing structures do not help them.
- They are often unfamiliar with the study skills and academic terminology that are taken for granted in a campus setting and this can cause confusion as well as creating feelings of inadequacy.
- At the same time, mature students are often highly motivated and resourceful since course completion can help them into a new career or give them opportunities for advancement. They have clearer goals for their studies than many campus students.
The crisis engulfing part-time adult learners in England points to an impoverished future in which higher education morphs into a purely full-time experience for 18-year olds fortunate enough to be born in the right place, attend the right school and gain the right A-Level grades. No more ‘second-chance’ transformations, no more learn-while-you-earn, no more enriching learning with contributions from adults who can bring different life experiences. Flexible opportunities for those disadvantaged individuals who cannot study full-time may all but vanish.
Changes are urgently needed and many of the report's recommendations can be applied in other countries around the world. One major factor is better recognition of prior learning, especially relevant workplace experience, and this would help reduce the study time necessary for a qualification. Another important factor is better guidance in the transition from adult education and non-formal learning into the formal university system. This is referred to as access pedagogy and can include preparatory courses and online guides focusing on study skills and academic writing and generally developing the students' confidence and resilience. Once accepted into a course the many students who are new to higher education will need initial extra support and tutoring is seen as particularly important:
... recognising some students will feel they do not belong, will feel they are transitioning ‘across separate worlds with no guidebook’, and will progress as a small and isolated cohort – so support students with tutors who will continue the higher education journey with them.
This support could come from various sources and not necessarily from university teachers. Support could come from local learning centres or from more experienced online students who could act as mentors. With such scaffolding in place there will be fewer dropouts and society will benefit from more people getting the chance to reskill and upskill. We keep hearing about the lack of qualified skilled people to fill vacancies in both the public and private sectors and it's time to do something about it.
Read more about the report in an article on FEnews, Unheard: The voices of part-time adult learners reveals the sharp decline in part-time learning.