By Robyn Banks
Imagine a mature student.
I’m guessing many of you are picturing someone middle aged, married with two to three grown up children, who can now afford to go back to university to get the career change they’ve always wanted but couldn’t get when they were growing up. This stereotypical view of mature students has a detrimental effect on the Mature Student community.
At UEA, a mature student is classed as anyone who is aged 21 or over when they start their course. 25% of all UEA students fall into this category, a huge proportion. But despite this Mature Students remain severely underrepresented in the student community.
To be clear, UEA SU have done a fantastic job making sure that mature students are represented. They, like many other students unions around the country, have an elected part-time Mature Students Officer. This allows mature students to have direct interaction with the SU about their issues, and for the union to run campaigns on their behalf. But the issues become apparent when we look beyond this representation from the union – the university itself is completely lacking in representation of this quarter of their student demographic.
This isolation can have a huge effect, not only on students’ mental health and their enjoyment of their lives, but also their likelihood to continue with their education.
The aforementioned stereotype of mature students regularly undermines the relationship between them, their fellow students and the university environment. Mature students are singled out as fundamentally different from their fellow students, even if they only have a three year age gap. Many other students form an image of what it is to be a mature students, of what their life off campus looks like, which is generally based on the assumptions that they have no interest in the student community, that they have their own friendships and aren’t looking to form new ones, or that they are at uni entirely for career reasons, not social reasons. This has a detrimental effect on how they are received in the university community.
Speaking to other mature students at UEA about how they feel about their time on campus, I notice a lot of similarities in their experience. One student told me that ‘the way that I’m viewed by other students makes me feel like I’m non-existent.’ They were the only mature student on their course and, as they hadn’t been given the opportunity to be able to meet other mature students at university-run events, they were isolated from their coursemates and therefore from the wider student community. Stories like this are all too common. This isolation can have a huge effect, not only on students’ mental health and their enjoyment of their lives, but also their likelihood to continue with their education. This is entirely unacceptable and not what people expect when they come to university.
We have already seen mature students numbers drop by 50% in 2014-15, leaving one third of institutions unable to hit their targets for mature student inclusion. NUS data from 2012 shows that 21.5% of mature student leave their course early. Assuming the rates at UEA are similar to this, mature student dropouts account for around 5% of the student population quitting every year. We need a change of attitudes, a change of the culture around how mature students are treated and seen.
But of course, as the increasing marketisation of education has made us well aware, the only thing that universities care about is the price tag students come with, not their welfare or enjoyment. This is at the root of the neglect of mature students. When universities depend on attracting as many students as possible to fund themselves (and line their pockets), they’ll always be focused on making their appeal as broad and generic as possible. In practice this means ignoring the needs of specific groups like mature students.
Universities need to start recognising that there is a conflict of interest here that affects many groups of students who don’t fit neatly into the stereotypical student mould of ’18-year-old British school-leaver from moderately wealthy background’. If universities were to put in the time and effort to talking to mature students, they’d find that we’re not asking for much. We want events that are aimed at those who don’t want to just go clubbing during freshers, space for people to discuss the challenges of coming to university after spending time in the workplace – in short, we want real assurances that our experience at university will be just as fulfilling as those of our peers, never mind what time in our lives we started.
Featured image via University College Cork