Posted tagged ‘mature students’

A learning society?

February 5, 2018

Since about the late 1980s, one of the key assumptions of all higher education planning has been that university education would not in future be mainly focused on the learner progression of school leavers but would be available to people at various stages of their lives and for different reasons. The concept of ‘lifelong learning’ was born, and it informed a good bit of education policy over the ensuing decades.

But has something changed? In the reporting of a noticeable drop in university applications in Ireland just now, one element of this that has received special mention is the decline in applications by mature students. This has been put down in part to the current economic recovery, which it is suggested has made continuing education less attractive to those already in employment.

But this decline in mature student numbers has not been unique to Ireland. In England the decline has been attributed to the impact of tuition fees.

Whatever the reason, if we are going to see fewer mature students (usually referred to as ‘adult learners’ in the United States) then this will have an impact on planning in higher education at various levels. It is time to re-state what public policy actually is in this area, and how it can best be realised.


Mature consideration

January 25, 2010

Last autumn it was 35 years since I embarked upon my undergraduate degree at Another Dublin College That Must Not Be Named. I was a law student (hell, maybe I shouldn’t have specified that, either). As it turns out, I studied with some fellow students who scrubbed up pretty well, career wise, and who are now household names. Gerry Ryan springs to mind, or indeed Brian Lenihan; and there were others. But there are two I want to remember in particular. One of them was Catherine McGuinness (later a Supreme Court judge and President of the Law Reform Commission), and the other was a man called Cecil Bates (I’m afraid I don’t know what happened to him subsequently). And why do I want to remember these in particular? Both of them were mature students.

Catherine McGuinness had already enjoyed quite a rewarding career before she ever came to study law, and in our lectures she added a unique and always interesting voice as a fellow student. If I recall correctly, she had been a member of the Adoption Board, and in that capacity had some really useful insights that fed into subjects like administrative law and family law. Cecil Bates had been a professor of classics at a university in Toronto, Canada: he was reinventing himself as a lawyer, but his knowledge of academic life, the classics and other areas of knowledge was something really special. and although he was if I recall nearly twice my age he became a good friend to me and others.

These two people made massive contributions to my student life, both intellectually and personally, and this persuaded me strongly of the merits of mature students being offered places in ‘ordinary’ undergraduate classes. Later when I was a Lecturer in the Same College I was an enthusiastic supporter of the convention of having a contingent of mature students in each group of students admitted, and as a lecturer I taught some amazing people, including a retired army officer then in his 70s. I didn’t need, and don’t need, any policy of ‘lifelong learning’ to persuade me that mature students have a right to be here.

It was therefore with some dismay that I read recently that some people are now doubting whether it is ‘fair’ to allow mature students to ‘take the place’ of school leavers in undergraduate programmes. ¬†Of course I understand that there are pressures now on students in the current economic conditions, and that many of them are anxious about their future and want the security of a university qualification. But to suggest that mature students should go away and do something else is very short-sighted. We need to ensure that all members of society have an opportunity to learn, to be trained, and to re-train. We need to allow people to aim to do something that suits them better than whatever it is they are doing. And we need to allow for those who, on losing their jobs, may want to learn something new and get new opportunities.

We also need to understand that excluding or discouraging mature students may have a gender-related effect (whether intended or not). But more generally we need to be committed to the idea that all people, whatever their backgrounds, have the same rights and should have the same opportunities. I hope we never get to the point where we will exclude or discourage mature students; not least because the younger school leavers will also be the losers if they no longer benefit from the experience and wisdom of those who come to university at a later age.