Financial barriers prevent mature students going to college, HEA survey finds

More than 50% of 25-44 year-olds have third-level degree, 40% of population

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said HEA  report will help the review of access policies. Photograph:  Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said HEA report will help the review of access policies. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

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Low numbers of mature students are entering higher education due to financial barriers, family commitments and a lack of flexible study options, according to a Higher Education Authority (HEA) report.

The report also shows the number of 25-44 year-olds with a college degree has climbed above 50 per cent.

Overall 40 per cent of the population have achieved third-level education while 7 per cent have a primary school education standard or less.

The 82-page report entitled Study of Mature Student Participation in Higher Education was carried out by Indecon for the HEA to explain the decline in numbers of mature students.

The study included a survey of more than 1,900 mature students, as well as stakeholder engagement and a review of national and international research.

It also found that the number of mature students in higher education declined as the unemployment rate fell. A mature student is one who is 23 or older on January 1st of the year they enter higher education.

The survey found that financial cost was viewed as the single greatest barrier to participation with 48 per cent of mature students reporting it as a significant barrier while 24 per cent stated that family responsibilities and commitments were a major obstacle to entering third-level education.

Job commitment was cited as a significant barrier in 16 per cent of cases while 13 per cent cited distance to travel for studies as a major problem and the timing of study options whether day or evening proved a significant barrier for 12 per cent of students.

The report noted that more mature students attended institutes of technology than universities and over half of mature students attended higher education on a full-time basis.

Mature students were more likely to be refused Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) grants than other students, but half of all mature students who are not in a National Action Plan (Nap) target group benefit from Susi or the back to school allowance or both.

Almost three in four mature students reported having participated in education and training prior to engaging in third level and over half participated in a FET (further education and training) course, while 21 per cent participated in a community education course.

In its recommendations, the study calls for access targets and supports to be focussed on disadvantaged communities as well as expanding opportunities for part-time learning. It also calls for strong national support for mature students as well as increasing provision for foundation and bridging courses. And it says “seamless pathways” between further education and training and higher education should be developed.

HEA head of access policy Caitríona Ryan described the research as timely because a new national access plan for 2022-2026 is currently being developed and the public consultation process remains open until June 18th.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said the report will help the review of access policies “to strengthen the participation of students from diverse backgrounds in higher education, particularly those who did not follow the more traditional transition routes”.

HEA chief executive Dr Alan Wall said the report provides “a crucial insight into the challenges faced by the mature student population” in accessing higher education. “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,” he said.