Why we must improve opportunity and accessibility for adult learners

We need mature students just as much as they need us. Adult learners offer a diverse perspective to the academic landscape, often entering higher education after already working in a career for several years or following on from looking after children or other dependents.
Fawad Inam
Fawad Inamhttps://oxfordbusinesscollege.ac.uk/
Fawad Inam is a professor and the executive principal at Oxford Business College in Oxford, England.

Across the higher education landscape, the challenge of attracting adult learners to higher education has become universal. As a college based in the UK, the choice and opportunity for adults reentering education tends to be limited. And in the past decade, they’ve begun to turn away from higher education.

In the 2019-20 academic year, adult learners made up 37% of all undergraduates. The highest average age range in this percentage was 21-24. Meanwhile, student enrolment from those who are 30+ has steadily declined since 2009, opting instead for remote and part-time options. The UK is not alone in declining levels of mature students. In 2021, 6.95% of Americans aged 25 to 29 were enrolled in college. For 30 to 34-year-olds, that number drops to 4.19%. Among all post-secondary students, the rate of 30- to 64-year-old enrolees declined by an average of 13.3% between 2005 and 2021.

In a rapidly changing world, it’s essential that we all continuously develop our skills with ongoing knowledge. So why are rates of adult learners entering higher education dropping? It comes down to improving accessibility and opportunity. This reflects both types of courses that are available and how many courses are offered remotely, part-time or flexibly.

We need adult learners just as much as they need us. Mature students offer a diverse perspective to the academic landscape, often entering higher education after already working in a career for several years or following on from looking after children or other dependents. Thanks to their practical experience in a similar or respective field to their chosen studies, they also offer innovation to academia. For the collective society, they contribute to a more informed and participatory citizenry, as education is also linked to increased civil engagement and social cohesion.

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What adult learners struggle with—and what we can do to support them

University students from nontraditional age ranges have their own unique set of challenges. However, through intentional design, higher education can create an ecosystem friendly to adult learners. By supporting students and making them aware of the different educational options available to them, higher education can be more attractive to mature learners.

Outside obligations

They often have family and work obligations that may prevent them from affording higher education or finding the time for higher education courses alongside other commitments. That’s why it’s essential to attract them with initiatives.

  • Flexible learning: At Oxford Business College, we have a community of campuses that allow learners from across the country to access education. Offering courses remotely, part-time and with independent study options can successfully attract mature students.
  • Flexible admission criteria, which take into account their diverse experiences and prior learning
  • Student support services: Ensuring students have well-being services available to them, along with support networks with other mature students. This could be achieved by arranging social events for them to attend.
  • Government policies: Affordable childcare would also enable many people to go back to education

Older learners can sometimes face general stigma when it comes to furthering their education, such as “older students will struggle with more modern teaching methods and courses.” There is often a misconception that adult learners may struggle with an academic environment, especially if they’ve been out of formal education for a long time.

  • Academic support services: Math and English skill courses and tutoring can help mature students feel more supported when adjusting to higher education.
  • Improve campus culture: An inclusive campus that values all pupils in the community is also essential. It won’t be until the narrative around mature students and life-long learning changes that we can see changes in higher education. Wellness schemes, tutors and social events are also crucial in a campus community that welcomes learners of all ages.

A lesson from Finland and Sweden

In Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden, more than half of the students are 25 or older. Both of these countries offer free higher education, leading to an uptake in adult learners. When looking at Nordic countries that offer free education and see higher levels of mature students, it sends a hopeful vision for the future of education throughout the world, where lifelong education becomes the norm, not a rarity.

Higher education will see the benefits of adult learners through new learners with diverse perspectives who can implement their new skills into an improved workforce.


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