Much of the discussion about widening participation in higher education is couched in terms of school leavers. Of course, enabling disadvantaged or excluded teenagers to access University is vitally important, and something that the University of Liverpool puts at the heart of its recruitment strategy. Mature students, however, are mostly peripheral to the national debate and rarely make the news in headlines of the ‘Unfair University Admissions’ or calls to ‘favour state schools’ variety. Indeed, could they be called the students that Widening Participation forgot…?
It is important that mature students elbow their way into these important debates. So many older people seem to automatically assume that University is not for them – especially if they had a disappointing experience at school or left at 16 to get a job. If they are in their 50s, they may remember a time when only the very privileged got to ‘read’ for a degree and when the percentage of people going into higher education was in single figures. It can be difficult to conjure up the self-belief to think ‘I can do it’ when for a large part of your life it has been assumed you can’t. Mature students need to be seen and heard so they become visible to other people like themselves.
During my time on Go Higher, and teaching on the University of Liverpool’s Continuing Education programme, I have come across many older students who have been short changed by their early education and who have had their confidence in their ability to do anything ‘intellectual’ squashed. I am thinking here, in particular, of the 11+ exam which still clings on near to Liverpool on the Wirral, justifying itself with the usual educational ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. The 11 + may have given a ‘golden ticket’ to the odd, lucky individual from an underprivileged background, but it certainly cut dead the aspirations and life chances of many, many more. One student I recall, a woman in her 50s, had ‘failed’ the 11+ and, still, over 40 years’ later, she retained a sense of ‘inferiority’. She was one of the most intelligent and well-read people I have met, completely self-taught until she began taking short courses at Liverpool University.
Go Higher is a programme designed for anyone who wants to gain the skills, qualifications and confidence needed for University entry, whatever their age or educational background. We cater for ‘mature’ individuals; ‘mature’ is a word that can mean a lot of things, for us it is people aged 21 or more. Our oldest Go Highers have been aged over 60, but every year we have a range of people join us in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and older. What they all have in common is a desire to study for a degree and, often, a life story that has prevented them realising their goal before.
For the University, these committed, life-experienced people make excellent students and typically do really well on Go Higher and on their chosen degree-path (they are also a real pleasure to teach). So let’s hear it for mature students – and make them a vital part of the widening participation story.