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Study to focus on “urgent” need to assess impact of outreach to adult learners in HE

Project has been commissioned by the Office for Fair Access

Birkbeck will participate in a new research project to examine the ways universities are reaching out to mature learners, particularly those in under-represented groups.

The six-month project, commissioned by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) will address a critical gap in widening participation policy: sector understanding of outreach aimed not at school pupils but at adults, and looking at groups currently under-represented in higher education.

Birkbeck, the OU, the University of Bristol and the University of Leeds will work in partnership to produce a series of case studies of different approaches to engage adult learners. The four institutions  have a historic mission to serve the needs of adult learners. 

“The issue of the decline in part-time HE learners has been well-documented, but the disproportionate impact of fee rises on adult learners, together with the inadequacy of Information, Advice and Guidance aimed at mature students, remain critical issues in efforts to widen access to university study,” said lead investigator Dr John Butcher from the Open University.

The case study offered by Birkbeck will explore the benefits of part time evening study for mature learners, with a particular focus on students without A level qualifications. Dr Kerry Harman (pictured), Programme Director for Higher Education Introductory Studies, who is the Birkbeck partner in the project, said: “Birkbeck has been providing access programmes for a number of years for mature students without A levels and the study provides an ideal opportunity to examine the success of these programmes. Importantly, rather than starting with a pre-defined notion of  ‘success’ the study will explore the ways mature learners constitute success as they speak of their experiences in HE.”

Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: "Adult learners enrich university communities, but there are still far too few of them. We urgently need to understand more about the specific challenges they face, and how best to attract and support them into higher education.

“This project will support universities and colleges to find out what works best for adult learners in their contexts, ensuring that the investment they make through their access agreements is having real impact.”

The study  will provide the HE sector with examples of the kind of intervention activities and curricula design that succeed with adults who require flexible support to engage with HE study. These will include examples of: preparatory, pre-entry part-time distance learning in STEM; the use of free open educational resources with adults in poorly paid employment sectors; progression pathways for evening students; community engagement around a Foundation Year in Arts/Humanities; and community links from non-formal learning through GCSE study to foundation years.

A key outcome will be the stimulus provided to universities to include credibly evaluated outreach with adults in Access Agreements. This will result in a fuller and more inclusive interpretation of widening participation in England.

Dr John Butcher said: “This is a really important commitment from OFFA, recognising the “absence”of adult learners from many policy pronouncements about widening participation."