New report tells universities to be more ambitious in reaching out to mature students

A new report says effective outreach to potential adult and mature students is vital to widen participation in Higher Education among under-represented groups and features Birkbeck's Certificate of Higher Education programme as a case study

University leaders must be more creative and try innovative initiatives to entice adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds into Higher Education, concludes a report looking at better ways to widen access and participation in this under-represented group.

It also calls for a requirement from all higher education institutions (HEIs) to commit to a specified and agreed proportion of their overall outreach spend which would improve access to HE for adults.

Four universities, including Birkbeck, collaborated on the project, led by The Open University and commissioned by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to provide case studies of examples of outreach to disadvantaged adult learners, for sharing with the rest of the sector. The six-month project produced a report: Understanding the impact of outreach on access to Higher Education for disadvantaged adult learners.

The report includes five case studies from the participating universities, all illustrating different working approaches, appealing to adult and part-time students. The report stresses that “one-size does not fit all”, and argues that universities must set ideas in their own context and develop them to suit their own adult learners’ needs.

Birkbeck's case study looked specifically at the transition of students from the Higher Educational Introductory Studies (HEIS) programme to the BSc in Social Sciences

The case studies were produced to give the whole sector real examples of the kind of intervention activities and curricula design that succeed with adult learners who require flexible support to engage with HE study.

A three-step “toolkit” has also been produced to enable institutions to evaluate their efforts and approach to encourage disadvantaged adult learners.

The project’s key recommendations to the sector are:

  • Be as ambitious as possible
  • Build confidence with small steps and/or tasters
  • Commit a budgetary amount for spending on attracting adult learners
  • Bridge the informal-formal learning divide
  • Offer clear pathways
  • Improve information and guidance directed at adult learners

Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: “Not only do the skills and experience adult learners bring to their studies contribute greatly to a more diverse student body, but there is a clear societal and economic benefit to people succeeding in higher education – whatever stage of their life they come to it. Age should never be a barrier to learning new skills or improving your career prospects, and I am sure these case studies will help stimulate thinking and encourage all universities and colleges to consider how best to reach out to adult learners.”

It’s hoped the report will provide the stimulus to universities to include credibly evaluated outreach with adult learners in Access Agreements and in turn a fuller and more inclusive interpretation of widening participation in England.

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