Speaking at the Office For Students’ Insight Event

Lifelong options: Improving opportunities for adult learners

I must confess, if given the choice between having a tooth extracted without pain relief and speaking in public, then the tooth extraction would win every time, as a childhood stammer has left me with a deep-rooted fear of public speaking. However, when the reason I am speaking is so important, it makes it worthwhile. The event was to highlight the opportunities and challenges for adult learners in higher education particularly in light of the effects of the pandemic. I am on the OfS student panel representing mature learners and was asked to talk about my experiences of being a mature student.

Mature learners are anyone over 21 (alarmingly I have clothes older than this) and there has been a 19% decline in recent years in the number studying. Many mature students study part-time due to family or work commitments and there has been a reduction in part-time courses offered. Despite the pandemic forcing online learning, there is still a hole in provision for mature students, for whom part-time home study would negate this barrier. Inversely to young students, the majority of mature students come from disadvantaged backgrounds highlighting the importance of learning provision in improving career prospects. In the pandemic, people over 50 that have been made redundant are not likely to return to similar employment, and I am included in that statistic. These experienced workers are, therefore, looking for a change in career. This is perhaps reflected in the increase of mature university applicants in the past year.

Surely then, it would make sense for HE providers to tap into this well of potential students?

The event was to encourage HE providers to do just that. My role was to introduce myself and my experiences as a mature student in a five-minute speech and to be involved in a panel Q&A session. Looking at my fellow speakers was enough to put my Imposter Syndrome into overdrive. Minister, peers, professors… and me. But what an opportunity! How often do we get to have direct contact with these educational heavyweights?  How often are our experiences and concerns directly heard by those in power? Not often.

I am a passionate advocate of the OU and the main points of my talk were the barriers to learning of commitments and confidence. Confidence in facing returning to learning after a possibly decades-long gap, encountering IT, possibly for the first time, that thought of being the only ‘oldie’ in a lecture theatre full of bright young things. Commitments in the form of children, elderly parents, work and, that biggie, finances. 

After keynote speeches by Michelle Donelan, Minister for Universities, and Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, the second part of the event was the panel Q&A which included discussions on such topics as access to study, IT, the rise of modular study, finances, flexibility, support and career prospects. Prior to the Q&A though was the dreaded ‘speech’. Luckily mine was up first and it all went as well as can be expected; I hope my passion for lifelong learning and the OU came across. Professor Liz Johnson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education at Deakin University, Australia spoke next about the excellent work they are doing to tailor learning and support for mature students. Professor Claire Callender (BSc, PhD,) Professor of Higher Education Policy at UCL and Professor of Higher Education Studies at Birkbeck, spoke about the need to reform student finances and Professor Wendy Reid MBBS FRCOG, Director of Education and Quality and Medical Director, Health Education England spoke about the importance of a flexible and inclusive approach to learning. Finally, Lopa Patel MBE, digital entrepreneur, chair of Diversity UK and council member for the OU, emphasised the importance of lifelong learning and the enabling effect of part-time learning and quality teaching. 

Illustrious company indeed! But instead of being intimidated, I found this amazing group of successful and, quite frankly, outstanding women to be completely inspirational. They really are the experts in their respective fields, and it was an honour to be alongside them. As Chris Millward, OfS Director for Fair Access and Participation, said in his summing up, encouraging mature learners into lifelong study is something that is at the top of the agenda. I couldn’t agree more. HE providers and the government need to encourage mature learners and give them all the opportunities afforded to their younger counterparts. The OU is, and always has been, at the forefront of this and I couldn’t be more proud to be an OU student.

Jo Barlow

Writing in a personal capacity and all views are my own.

** For full details please see the OFS Insight Brief: Improving opportunity and choice for mature students – Office for Students

Blog on increased mature student applications:https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/surge-of-mature-applicants-sparks-calls-for-additional-support/

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