“Lifelong learning is vital for a fairer society, social mobility and economic advancement. As many people as possible should have the option of going to university, at any stage of life. So why are mature students so consistently ignored and left behind?” asks Tom Campbell, NUS National Executive Committee Mature Students rep and Chair of Keele Labour Students
I witnessed these issues first hand when my mother went to university at 51, meaning whilst in education she had me and my ageing grandfather to care for. This of course would put a strain on her education, and there were very little systems in place to support her. It was this that gave me an understanding of the challenges mature students face.
Since 2012 and the introduction of the new rate of tuition fees, the number of mature students has fallen sharply. The Independent Commission on Fees linked this directly to the increase in fees and gave a figure of a 14% decline. However, even this figure barely scratches the surface.
This decline is being driven by the governments ill thought out changes to student finance - yet another reason why the current unsustainable tuition fee system needs to be urgently reviewed and brought to an end. Anticipation of taking on such a vast amount of debt so long after leaving full-time education is an unappealing prospect for many. For those who already have a degree, the option of a student loan is not even on the table, meaning large and often unmanageable up-front costs.
The lack of maintenance grants means those from a poorer background, or distance learners with more costs, have been hit particularly hard. Many mature applicants are from disadvantaged backgrounds, so the severe decline in numbers has had a disproportionate impact on widening access and social mobility.
Structural problems add to the other issues that mature students routinely face and university after university seems unwilling and unable to address: integration, particularly social integration with clubs and societies, timetabling issues and making adequate adjustments for those with caring responsibilities.
Going forward we need government-level action on student finance and institutions need to step up, as part of a wider push around access.
As a student movement we need to practise what we preach on inclusivity. Mature students must be welcome to engage in clubs and societies. People across the movement must vocally and repeatedly support us as we fight for our cause and a more inclusive Higher Education system.
By campaigning together we can fight to give mature students the experience and opportunities we deserve.
Tom Campbell is the Mature Students Rep on NUS’ National Executive Committee and Chair of Keele Labour Students