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16 November 2021

How can we accommodate the needs of mature students when we contemplate post-pandemic recovery in higher education?


Amarjit Basi
Executive Director of the Black FE Leadership Group

Amarjit Basi is an Executive Director of the Black FE Leadership Group. Prior to this, he was Principal and CEO of a number of diverse further education colleges, leading many of them to achieve outstanding outcomes through regulatory processes. He was also a Board member of Pearson Education Limited.

The COVID-19 outbreak has impacted groups of workers differently in the UK. For those who are no longer able to work or have been forced to work less because of the pandemic, there have been stark economic consequences.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) identifies that people employed in the ‘shutdown sectors’ such as retail, passenger transport, accommodation and food, and arts and leisure, are disproportionately affected. The Labour Force Survey shows that within these sectors:

  • 15% of workers are from Black and minority ethnic groups
  • 57% are women, compared to a workforce average of 48%
  • 41% are part-time workers, compared to a workforce average of 26%
  • 15% are disabled, compared to a workforce average of 14%
  • Nearly 50% are under 35.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) identifies that the same groups faced labour market barriers before COVID:

  • Unemployment amongst Black and minority ethnic groups was 6.3% in early 2020, compared to 3.9% for the population overall.
  • Gender pay differentials were 8.9% and 17.3% for full-time and all workers, respectively.
  • Gross hourly pay for part-time workers was £9.94, compared to £14.88 for full-time employees.
  • 53.2% of disabled people were employed, compared to 81.8% of non-disabled people.
  • The unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds was 11.9%, compared to 3.9% overall.

The Resolution Foundation reports that median weekly pay for ‘shutdown sector’ workers is £348, compared to £479 for all workers. Those aged 25-49 account for the highest proportion of new unemployed claimants (75% of 526,500). There are marked regional differences, particularly in those areas hit hardest by the pandemic.

It is hardly surprising therefore, that ‘mature entries’ onto full-time undergraduate courses have increased to record levels in recent years. Mature applicants for full-time courses starting in 2021 rose by 24%. In 2020, there were relatively high proportions of mature entrants among Black students (38%), particularly Black women (41%).

Whilst an increase in mature entrants onto undergraduate courses reflects historical enrolment patterns associated with recession, this comes at a time of unprecedented levels of unfilled vacancies and a heightened focus on skills policies relating to adult reskilling, upskilling and lifelong learning.

This demands a step change in how higher education ensures adult returners enjoy the same quality higher education experience as other students. In its 2020 Annual Review, the Office for Students states:

Our analysis of access and participation plans has shown that mature students have not been prioritised by many universities…There are strong arguments for increasing access to higher education for mature students from a social mobility perspective and from an economic one. Mature learners play an important part in upskilling the workforce to help meet the future economic demands facing the country.

Outcomes amongst mature students following undergraduate courses suggest more can be done to ensure that mature students are effectively supported and feel valued:

  • The number of mature undergraduate entrants fell 40% from 2010-11 to 2017-18 - from more than 400,000 to fewer than 240,000. Numbers increased to 254,000 in 2019-20, driven by an increase in mature applicants onto full-time programmes.
  • Whilst there has been an increase in mature full-time students in recent years, part-time mature student numbers have continued to fall. The decline has been attributed to several factors including fee rises in 2012, alongside the removal of student grants and NHS bursaries. Part-time students are much less likely than full-time students to take out student loans. Overall, 89% of part-time students are mature. 
  • Mature undergraduate students are more likely to drop out of their course. In 2016-17, 15.2% did not continue in higher education after their first year, compared to 7.8% of younger students.
  • Mature students are less likely to graduate with a first or upper second-class degree - 67% did so in 2016-17, compared with 79% of younger students.

However, despite the above, there are some more promising statistics on the outcomes of mature students who complete higher education:

  • Mature graduates are more likely to be employed in full-time work. A survey of 2017-18 UK graduates 15 months after finishing their course found that 63% of those aged 25-29 were in full-time work, compared with 59% of those aged 21-24.
  • Mature graduates are more likely to be employed in a highly skilled employment. In 2015-16, 77% were in such jobs, compared with 73% of young graduates.
  • Older graduates who were in employment tend to earn more. 33% of those aged 25 and older were earning more than £30,000 compared to 19% of those aged under 25. At the other end of the earnings spectrum 16% of those aged 25 and older were earning less than £21,000, compared with 31% of other graduates.

So, as we contemplate a post-pandemic recovery that is neither going to be linear nor equitable, do we not owe those groups, who have been disproportionately disadvantaged by COVID, the support and attention they deserve to succeed in higher education?

Why not look at upskilling/reskilling allowances for people employed in sectors disproportionately affected by the pandemic, parity in the student loan and maintenance grant system for part-time learners and those following more flexible HE pathways, enhanced support for caring responsibilities, and incentives for those preferring to pursue online learning.

QAA manages the Access to HE Diploma which supports adult learners to gain the qualification needed to enter higher education. To find out more about the Diploma, visit the Access to HE website.