The National Strategy for Higher Education has stated that much more progress needs to be made in terms of innovation and flexibility to raise the level of higher education attainment and lifelong learning for adults. While there has been growth in this sector, to achieve the objective, the needs of adults returning to education must be paramount. Adults who combine work or caring responsibilities with studies, unemployed people who want to gain new skills and seek qualifications while remaining available for work are typical for those seeking education and training and supports must be available to allow them to partake.
An essential part of the strategy is to enable broader ways of accessing appropriate learning, combined with a funding model that will support part time and full time students in equal measure. The higher education sector will also need to respond to external demands from employers and communities for continual professional development programmes and specific up-skilling.
There are very strong social and economic reasons for extending the focus on raising education levels in the broader adult population. Evidence shows nationally and internationally the link between educational achievement and employment opportunities and the downside of lack of appropriate education – unemployment.
The cost of failing to consider long-term exclusion from the labour force is not to be underestimated. While the costs of education and support may seem significant, the cost of failing to provide these supports is greater resulting in long-term social welfare dependency, crime, poor mental and physical health, financial insecurity, housing insecurity, and social unrest. There are many reasons why people do not avail of education from school leavers who wanted to earn the easy money of the tiger years, to those who have dependents or were financially unable to attend college.
Part-time and Mature Student Profile
- Mature students comprise 92% of those entering part-time, undergraduate programmes, compared with only 15% of full time entrants.
- The majority of those entering part-time courses are from a broad range of age groups, compared to full-time students, who are predominantly 17 to 20 years old (79%).
- There are distinctions between the age of full and part-time mature students with 25% of full-time entrants aged 23 or 24 while the majority (80%) are below 40 years of age, compared to part-time mature students, where 95% 23 to 56 years of age
There is not a wide range of socio-economic data available but recent findings about mature students will assist educational institutions of all kinds to focus the courses on offer for the potential new student population.
- Mature students are slightly more likely be disabled in some way (9.5%) than the broader student body where this figure drops (5.9%). They are three times as likely to have a psychological condition or physical disability.
- Estimates show that in general, there are a greater proportion of mature students (36%) from a manual worker background (unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled). This compares to only 22% in the younger age groups, particularly in Institutes of Technology.
- The proportions of mature students from non-manual worker backgrounds are similar to the wider student body (11-12%).
- There are higher retention rates for mature students on Level 6 and 7 than those on Level 8 courses.
Improving Awareness of Part Time Education
There is a need to improve the existing systems of information and guidance for higher and further education opportunities and in advice sources for those not engaged in education. Further work will be needed to promote the availability of the various part-time courses and supports on offer to a wider audience. Many part time mature students when canvassed indicated that around half did not receive any type of guidance to pursue their education. This is something that urgently needs rectifying. If guidance was received, it was invariably from the further education course provider.
Clearly there is a need for agencies to work together more and for the availability of information to be more accessible. The key to economic recovery in Ireland depends on an educated workforce at every level and the part time course is a vital element of this progress. Information and marketing to put the message out to adults who may be at a crossroads and looking for guidance plus sensible options for financing and support will lead to a more inclusive society, relief on the social welfare system and will make Ireland ready to catch the wave of emerging technologies.