How do mature students perform in higher education?

New PictureThere has been a lot of research into mature students in higher education. My strong impression is that the main focus of it is on access – that is, the rate at which adult students enter institutions, the subjects that they study, the ways in which they study, and their experiences while studying. There has been much less study of how they perform academically, or of how they fare after they graduate.

The fate of non-traditional graduates in the labour market is being investigated by the EMPLOY research project. And a study for HEFCE has recently compared how different types of student perform academically within higher education. The media have shown great interest in HEFCE’s findings, though perhaps predictably they have concentrated largely on evidence that state school students are more likely to achieve a first or upper second class degree than the privately-educated.

My focus in this post is on quite another group: mature age students, whether studying full- or part-time. First, though, a couple of health warnings. We should treat the degree classification system as a very rough and ready indicator of ability and attainment. The proportion who achieve a first or upper second varies over time (usually it grows) and between institutions. It’s difficult to say why these variations occur, not least because any discussion triggers defensiveness in the academic community, and ‘dumbing down’ accusations from the tabloids. But if degree classification is far from perfect, it tells us something.

My next qualifier concerns the methods used in the study. The researchers undertook a statistical analysis that allowed them to compare groups by controlling for other factors. For example, the method only compared mature students who had been to state schools and were studying at pre-92 universities with younger students with the same background, and so on. This aspect was not much reported in the media, who simply headlined the finding that – to cite the BBC – State students outperform private in degree grades. 

Though the media ignored this point, it matters because it means that the researchers are trying to compare like with like. But of course, they cannot take account of factors for which they do not have information (such as income level, family background or first language). And they could only look at very large groups, taking all mature students together (defined as over 21 at time of entry) and all minority ethnic groups together (despite huge variations between different groups).

This procedure makes a big difference to how we understand the performance of mature students. The crude data for 2013/14 show that 64% of mature graduates achieved a first or upper second, compared with 75% of young graduates. But once they controlled for other factors, the researchers found a “dramatic” shift in their figures: taking everything into account, mature students were 7% more likely to gain a top degree, as opposed to 11% less likely.

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What this means is that for mature students, the negative variation in degree results is largely explained by other things than their age. For example, it might be down to their prior qualifications having prepared them less well than recent A-Levels, or their tendency to cluster in universities (and colleges) that award relatively few first and upper second class degrees. And it might also mean that adults have a relative advantage in being able to draw on life experience, which would explain the large shift between the observed gap of -11% and the +7% gap in the statistical analysis.

Then we come to part-time students, who are of course largely likely to be adults who combine study with other activities such as caring or work. The observed gap between part-time and full-time students is large: 75% of full-timers gained a first or upper second, compared with 57% of part-timers. When other factors are taken into account, the gap fell, but by only 4%, from 18% to 14%.

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So, all other things being equal, there appears to be a serious educational disadvantage from studying part-time. Like all statistical models this is a pattern at the level of the whole population, and a lot of individuals may have very different experiences, but that does not invalidate the method. Rather, it tells us that we need to look elsewhere to explain the relatively poor performance of many part-time students – and, I hope, then to do somethiing about it.

And as an academic veteran, I can think of a few possible causes that lie within the power of universities. Academic support for part-timers tends to be less effective, partly because facilities are often closed outside ‘normal’ working hours, for example. Other factors can be very challenging for institutions, particularly those that result from the busy lives of people who have full time roles elsewhere, and who are students for only a relatively small part of their lives.

What the research does not justify is the sharp decline in part-time and mature-age study that has taken place across all four nations of the UK. The collapse in part-time higher education in particular is a scandal: it makes a mockery of claims to be promoting forms of study that combine learning with work, and it is undermining social mobility. In the end, then, it will damage both society and the economy.

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