Maura O'Shea

By Maura O'Shea

Posted: 14 June, 2021

A man taking notes on a desk while on his laptop

Report calls for access targets and supports to be focused on disadvantaged communities as well as expanding opportunities for part-time learning.

The number of people aged between 15-64 years who have achieved a third-level qualification in Ireland has increased by 5% in the past decade, with educational attainment rates remaining high, new research has shown.

The research reveals 40% of the population having achieved third-level education and just 7% have primary level or below. Within the 25-44 year age cohort, levels of participation in higher education have surpassed 50%.  However, National Access Plan target group members have relatively low levels of education attainment in comparison to overall population levels.

The independent study entitled ‘Study of Mature Student Participation in Higher Education’, carried out by Indecon, was commissioned by the Higher Education Authority to understand the reasons for the decline in numbers of mature students – reported in the 2018 National Access Plan (NAP) Progress Review – and to identify measures to address the issue. Part of this study was a survey of over 1,900 past, current and potential mature students as well as detailed stakeholder engagement and a review of national and international research.  A key finding was that the number of mature students in higher education declined as the unemployment rate fell.

The study found that over half of mature students in Ireland attend an Institute of Technology for their higher education and this is due, in part, to the differences in courses on offer. In the academic year 2018/2019, 6.8% of new entrants in universities were mature students, compared with 12.3% in colleges and Institutes of Technology.

It identified that a range of funding supports are available to mature students. Two of the most important are the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant and the Back to Education Allowance. While mature students with a disability, lone parents and students from an area of disadvantage are more likely to benefit from these supports, half of all mature students who are not in a NAP target group benefit from one, or both, of these supports.

The study also found that guidance and peer support for mature students work well. The report highlights the importance of pathways to higher education for mature students. Almost three in four mature students reported having participated in education and training prior to engaging in higher education. Over half participated in a FET course, while 21% participated in a community education course.

When it comes to barriers to participation in higher education, current, former and prospective mature students from NAP target groups and non-NAP target groups cited financial cost, followed by family responsibilities and commitments, distances and a lack of flexible study options.

Among its recommendations, the report calls for access targets and supports to be focussed on disadvantaged communities as well as expanding opportunities for part-time learning. It calls for strong national provision of guidance and support for mature students as well as increasing provision for foundation/provision of bridging courses in partnership with further education, and the development of seamless pathways between further education and training and higher education.

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris said: “I am delighted to welcome the publication of this very important report. It will help us in our review of access policies and supports which seek to strengthen the participation of students from diverse backgrounds in higher education, particularly those who did not follow the more traditional transition routes.”

 “Enabling all of society to reach their full potential is even more important as we embark on the new period of recovery which must include all of society. This will be a key focus for us in the development of our new National Access Plan which is currently at public consultation phase.”

Higher Education Authority CEO Dr Alan Wall said: “This report provides a crucial insight into the challenges faced by the mature student population (current, former and prospective) in accessing and participating in higher education. Mature students bring with them a wealth of life experience and diversity of backgrounds. The economy, and Ireland’s wider social and cultural development, needs their skills and perspectives. Therefore, they must be provided with the opportunities and flexibility to learn, study and upskill that they may not have been able to access earlier in their lives.”

HEA Head of Access Policy, Caitríona Ryan, said the publication of this research is timely as it coincides with the consultation process on the next National Access Plan (2022-2026) which is open until Friday 18 June.

“Its findings and recommendations will input into the development of the next Plan and provide an evidence base for more effective targeting and tailoring of actions to support mature students.

Thank you to Indecon Consultants for conducting the research and particular thanks to the hundreds of students who participated in the student survey and to all other stakeholders who contributed to the work.” she said.

Study of Mature Student Participation in Higher Education

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