The Office for Fair Access closed at the end of 31 March 2018 and responsibility for higher education access regulation transferred to the Office for Students

Topic briefing: mature and part-time students

This briefing gives an overview of the current challenges around access, student success and progression for mature learners in England. It highlights effective practice examples of how universities and colleges are working towards widening access and participation for mature learners. It also includes questions that higher education providers can use to further develop their work in this area.

We hope this briefing will stimulate thinking and discussion about access, student success, and progression for mature learners leading to more evidence-led approaches tailored to institutions’ own contexts and circumstances.


Who are mature students?

Why are mature students important?

The current situation

Effective approaches

Questions to consider

Related resources

Who are mature students?

In line with the national strategy for access and student success we define mature students as those aged 21 or over at the time of starting their course.

This term ‘mature students’ covers a large variety of learners of all ages, needs and backgrounds. UCAS has indicated that approximately half of mature undergraduate UK entrants in 2017 are aged between 21 and 24, 39 per cent are between 25 and 39, and 12 per cent are over 40 years old.

In 2016-17, 92 per cent of undergraduate part time students were mature students compared with 23 per cent of full time students (source: Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)). Part-time students, therefore, made up 48 per cent of the mature student population in 2016-17.

Why are mature learners important?

The Office for Students guidance about mature learners

The Office for Students (OFS) Regulatory Notice 1: Access and participation plan guidance for 2019-20 (2018) identifies reversing the decline in higher education participation by mature students from under-represented groups as one of two key priorities relating to improving fair access to higher education. The document also highlights an expectation that all institutions with an access and participation plan will assess their performance in relation to mature students.

In addition to OFS guidance, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) commissioned research into the impact of outreach activity for mature learners with low or no prior qualifications. This research includes five institutional case studies and provides a tool for institutions to use to assess their performance in this area.

Million Plus has also produced research with support from OFFA: Forgotten Learners: building a system that works for mature students (2018). The research highlights key issues, barriers and opportunities to enable mature students to access higher education.

Current issues relating to mature students

Numbers of mature students have declined because there are fewer older part-time students

HESA figures show a 49 per cent fall in the number of mature entrants to undergraduate study between academic years 2006-7 and 2016-17 (Figure 1). As the graph shows, this is primarily due to the significant 67 per cent fall in the numbers of part time students over the same period, the equivalent of 175,000 fewer learners. There has been a small increase in the numbers of full-time mature learners over the past four years, although it is still below the level of 2009-10. Analysis by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE publication 2013/03, Higher education in England: impact of the 2012 reforms) in 2015 showed that mature learners were disproportionally affected by the tuition fee changes in 2012 compared to younger students.

Further analysis of these figures by HEFCE (HEFCE publication 2017/20, Higher education in England 2017: key facts) shows that the group contributing most to this decline are more likely to be:

Figure 1. Number of UK domiciled, undergraduate mature entrants in English institutions

A graph showing that mature entrant numbers have fallen from over 318,000 in 2006-07 to under 163,000 in 2016-17. The graph shows that this trend has been driven by a fall in part-time entry from 239,000 to 84,000, compared to full-time entry which has remained relatively constant at between 73,000 and 97,000 throughout the whole time series.

Data source: HESA UK Performance indicators (Table 2a and 2b)

There has also been a decline in the number of mature student nursing applications and acceptances. The UCAS 2017 end of cycle report states that one in six nursing applicants are mature. Within this group there has been a 13 per cent decline in acceptances in the 21-25 age group, and a 6 per cent decline in those aged over 26. A Department for Education report (Equality analysis: higher education student finance for the 2017 to 2018 academic year, 2016) suggests that the change from NHS bursaries to fees and loans for nursing students may have created a specific barrier for the largely female intake who are over 25 and have children, because they may be more sensitive to cost. However, nursing courses in general remain oversubscribed (source: UCAS, 2017 end of cycle report).

Mature and part-time students have different degree outcomes

Analysis by HEFCE (HEFCE publication 2015/21, Differences in degree outcomes: The effect of subject and student characteristics) found that a lower proportion of mature students obtain a first or upper second class degree compared with young students. However, after taking into account other factors such as entry qualifications, mature graduates have an unexplained seven percentage point advantage over young graduates. This suggests that mature students with the same entry qualifications as younger students do better in their studies.

The same report also found that there is an unexplained 14 percentage point gap between the proportions of full-time and part-time students obtaining a first or upper second class degree. In other words, when comparing full- and part-time students with the same entry qualifications, part-time students do less well than their full time peers. This indicates that there are additional factors, unrelated to demography or prior attainment, facing part-time students.

Furthermore, the non-continuation rate for mature students in England is currently around 12 per cent (source: HESA, 2018), compared to around 6 per cent among young students. Significant reasons for this cited by students include the difficulties of balancing study with other commitments and financial problems (MillionPlus and NUS, Never too late to learn, 2012; MillionPlus, Forgotten Learners: building a system that works for mature students, 2018).

Mature students are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds and have non-traditional qualifications

Mature learners are more likely than younger learners to have characteristics associated with disadvantage and under-representation in higher education. Research by MillionPlus and the NUS (Never too late to learn, 2012) found that mature students are more likely to be from lower socio-economic status backgrounds, have caring responsibilities, be disabled, and be from Black and minority ethnic (BME) groups. A report by the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL, Moving on up, 2017) found that care-experienced young people are more likely than the general student population to enter higher education later, having taken alternative qualifications, and stay in higher education longer, meaning that they are more likely to be mature students.

Many mature students take non-traditional routes in to higher education. For example, over 23,600 students took an Access to Higher Education Diploma in 2015-16 (source: Access to Higher Education, The Access to Higher Education Diploma: Key Statistics 2015-16, 2017) with 87 per cent of those being mature students. Other common qualifications include distance learning A levels, professional experience or qualifications, foundation courses, and the Open University Access modules.

Finance can be a barrier to higher education for mature students

Students who have either graduated or completed more than one year of any higher education qualification previously may not be eligible for full student finance to cover the costs of studying. For example, most students who hold a higher education qualification are currently not entitled to apply for fee loans for a second course if that course leads to a qualification that is equivalent or lower in level (ELQ) than their first qualification. This may create a barrier for students who have dropped out of higher education for reasons associated with disadvantage in the past, or who have studied a different higher education qualification such as a HNC, and would then like to start stage one of a full degree.

In addition, while there is a student finance package available for tuition fees and living costs while studying in higher education, there is much less support for the level 3 education often required to gain entry to higher education. For example, the tuition fees for some level 3 qualifications such as an Access to Higher Education Diploma can be funded using an Advanced Learner Loan, but living cost support is often limited to bursaries provided by the further education college.

Finally, recent MillionPlus research (Forgotten Learners: building a system that works for mature students, 2018) identified that mature students are more likely to have childcare responsibilities, mortgages, and commute to university or college, and therefore incur the associated financial and practical barriers to studying in higher education.

Mature students are a non-captive audience

Prospective mature learners, who are not already enrolled with a further education college, are a non-captive and diverse audience. Outreach and information, advice and guidance (IAG) for young learners often relies on institutions engaging with schools and colleges. Higher education providers, therefore, may have to take a more innovative approach to engaging potential mature students, for example by targeting specific groups, such as parents or cultural groups, for outreach activities, and using targeted marketing to provide IAG about higher education. Examples of such activities can be found in the Open University report, commissioned by OFFA, Understanding the impact of outreach activity for mature learners with low or no prior qualifications (2017).

Working in partnership: enabling social mobility in higher education – the final report of the Social Mobility Advisory Group (2016) states that IAG for mature learners is limited, and highlights this as a key area for development. IAG for prospective mature students is available online, for example the Lifepilot website, and in many further education colleges. However, research from MillionPlus and the NUS (Never too late to learn, 2012) shows that many mature learners do not use public information sources. Therefore institutions may need to be proactive in providing IAG to specific mature student groups.

What is already being done through access agreements?

In 2018-19 access agreements:

Effective approaches

Case studies

Access: University of East London

Success: University of Manchester

Progression: Myerscough College

Conduct an assessment of your performance using the OFFA tool and student consultation

The OFS Regulatory Notice 1: Access and participation plan guidance for 2019-20 (2018) states that universities and colleges applying for an access and participation plan must conduct an assessment of their current performance to understand the issues facing mature students and the opportunities available, and identify a strategy based on this information. This may include considering the institution’s mission, local and national demographics, applications and acceptances to the institution, and mature student and community opinions.

For example, the University of Bristol found that mature student applicants were more likely than the whole student population to be from several key OFFA target groups, and that more than half of applications were independent of a school or college (Fleming, L and Sperlinger, T, “It’s time to put mature students at the heart of widening participation“, PolicyBristol Hub, 2017). They also identified that students on their Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities were more likely to have experienced multiple forms of disadvantage.

The Office for Students Regulatory Notice 1: Access and participation plan guidance for 2019-20 highlights that providers must ensure that students will be active partners in developing, implementing and evaluating access, success and progression work. Providers may wish to consult mature students using a variety of methods such as student representation in decision making meetings, focus groups, or by developing programmes in partnership with students. 

Higher education providers can also use the OFFA-commissioned three-step evaluation tool to inform the development of their outreach for adult learners. Student unions can also use the tool as a set of questions to ask their institution about what they are doing to support mature learners.

Provide accessible routes in to higher education and work collaboratively

Depending on provider entry requirements, prospective mature students may have to complete a level 3 qualification to access higher education. In this instance, a provider’s ability to recruit more mature students is reliant on the awareness, availability, and accessibility of level 3 provision. Therefore it is important that higher education providers are working collaboratively with schools, further education colleges, and providers of distance learning level 3 qualifications such as A levels. Distance learning STEM courses present a specific problem because students are not always able to access facilities to complete the practical element of the course. Institutions may wish to work with providers of such courses to make facilities available for this purpose.

Alternatively, some higher education providers offer a variety of accessible routes into higher education based at their own institution. For example:

IAG and outreach for mature students

In 2018-19 access agreements, 81 institutions stated that they provide IAG to mature students. For example, Birkbeck, University of London offers monthly Get Started sessions to support prospective mature students through the whole application process, from choosing a course, to supporting with fees and finance.

Some institutions target specific groups of prospective mature learners in collaboration with community groups and organisations. For example, Bath Spa University commissioned research into the experiences of people with a services background who undertake an Access to Higher Education Diploma (Bath Spa University, Understanding the journey to and through ‘Access to Higher Education Diplomas’ for adults with a service background, 2016).

Other institutions use targeted outreach specifically for mature learners including taster days, summer schools and advertising aimed for parents at schools. For example, Croydon College runs a summer school for mature students. During this event, students are given a full induction to the college, services and facilities, and their tutor. The students are introduced to their chosen subject by completing small project work and are taught academic research methods and referencing.

To read more case studies about effective outreach for adult learners, see the OFFA commissioned research by the Open University Understanding the impact of outreach activity for mature learners with low or no prior qualifications (2017).

Student success: Taking a whole institution approach to working with mature students, including providing flexible modes of learning

To enable mature students to succeed in higher education, it may be necessary to make sure a provider is encouraging a sense of belonging among mature learners (Carruthers Thomas, K, Thinking ‘spatially’ about mature part-time learners in HE, 2015) and meeting their practical needs. An OFFA commissioned tool for assessing a ‘whole institution approach’ is available to help you review your performance in this area and identify areas for development. For example, Liverpool John Moores University offers Skype facilities to students with parental responsibilities.

Some institutions also provide flexible degree level study aimed at mature students from under-represented groups. This may include flexible and evening, part- and full-time study, intensive block classes, modular and credit-based pathways, and virtual or distance learning. An alternative mode of study may be competency-based learning in collaboration with employers. For example, Kingston Maurward College and the British Holiday and Home Parks Association have developed a foundation degree in Tourism Park Management, the flexible delivery of which fits around employment.

MillionPlus research (Forgotten Learners: building a system that works for mature students, 2018) highlights the need to ensure that institutions are set up to be accessible to those with caring responsibilities. They recommend that institutions avoid making changes to timetables which may affect mature students with childcare or work arrangements to ensure that caring responsibilities do not act as a barrier for course completion.

Provide tailored financial support for mature students

Some institutions highlight that they provide additional financial support for mature students, for example for student parents, to aid retention and success. A key recommendation for providers in the MillionPlus Forgotten Learners report (2018) is that institutions should make mature students aware of the financial support available to them.

Where a provider offers significant financial support for mature students, it needs to do so on the basis of strong evidence of how this financial support will help to improve outcomes for mature students. More information can be found in our financial support topic briefing.

Student success and progression: Providing tailored support for mature students

Many institutions report that they offer intensive pastoral, tutoring and mentoring support schemes for mature students. This support is aimed at helping students throughout the duration of their course, identifying those at risk of dropping out. For example, Coventry University runs Transition Events for mature students before they start their course. These events provide an opportunity for networking and familiarisation with the institution. The university states that these have resulted in an increased uptake in places and a decrease in drop-out rates.

The MillionPlus Forgotten Learners research (2018) found that a quarter of students said their student experience could be improved by including more opportunities to meet up with other mature students of similar ages.

Some institutions report that they are supporting the progression of mature students in to employment after identifying key issues in this area. Therefore, institutions may wish to consider how best to support the employability and further study of mature students in their own context.  For example, the University of East Anglia has an Employability Development Bursary available to target groups, including mature learners. Students are able to use it how they wish, with the majority using it to fund work experience and internships, which has helped to improve their confidence, personal development and soft skills.

Further reading

  1. The Open University and OFFA report, Understanding the impact of outreach activity for mature learners with low or no prior qualifications (2017) highlights five case studies and provides a tool providers can use to evaluate their mature student outreach provision.
  2. Never Too Late To Learn (MillionPlus and NUS, 2012), and Forgotten Learners: building a system that works for mature students (MillionPlus, 2018) highlight the issues facing mature students and provide recommendations.
  3. The London Economics reportfor The Open University, Birkbeck University and London South Bank University How is the demand for part-time higher education affected by changing economic conditions? (2017)  explores some of the issues relating to the part-time student market.

Questions to consider

  1. How are you collecting evidence of the gaps in access, student success, and progression of mature students at your institution?
    1. How are you taking a strategic, whole lifecycle approach to these issues?
    2. How do you support the retention and success of your mature students?
    3. How do you ensure mature learners get adequate support as they prepare to enter and succeed in employment or postgraduate study? Have you articulated this well in your access agreement?
  2. How could you listen to and engage with mature learners better, so that you can provide effective support and address any barriers facing them?
  3. How might you adapt your mode of studying and/or offer flexible learning provision to make higher education more accessible to your mature learners?
  4. How might you provide information, advice and guidance to prospective students who are a non-captive audience?
    1. Could you use any marketing techniques to provide information to potential mature students?
    2. Do you collaborate with adult community groups and further education colleges?
  5. Do you provide any taster courses, short courses, or alternative entry qualifications such as foundation qualifications to support mature learners back into education?
  6. What systems do you have in place to robustly evaluate the impact of your work in relation to mature learners?
  7. Is your financial support strategy meeting the needs of your mature learners?