The number of older people in higher education has doubled in the past 10 years, but research suggests that universities are not meeting their needs. Francis Beckett reports on why mature students risk poverty and ultimate disappointment, and talks toa former bag lady turned graduate and a waitress determined to change her life.
Higher education, says Gillian Shephard, is no longer "the preserve of a youthful elite". The "dramatic growth in the less traditional customer" such as mature students is an "unsung revolution".
The number of mature students - those over 21 when they start their course, or 25 for postgraduates - more than doubled between 1982 and 1992, from 139, 800 to 319,400. In 1992, for the first time, they outnumbered young students. In 1992, the latest year for which figures are available, there were four times as many mature students on full-time first degree courses as in 1982, and three times as many on postgraduate courses. And all these figures exclude the Open University, which has also increased its mature student numbers.
But is this a symptom of "increasing diversity", as the Education Secretary claims, or of a contracting job market? Are universities and colleges of higher education catering for the needs of mature students, or simply accepting gratefully the revenue they bring in? Are mature students getting the best that higher education can provide, or the leavings of the "youthful elite"? Is everything possible being done to clear away obstacles in the path of those seeking a second chance? And are they treated fairly by the job market after they finish studying?
At the University of Kent, Linden West and Mary Lea of the School of Continuing Education have been studying a group of mature students for the past two years, to find out why they enter higher education and what effect it has on them. They believe that mature students are suffering from a lack of money and that the universities lack resources to cope with their needs.
"We now have a majority of mature students and that is to be celebrated, " says Mr West. "But the expansion has happened at a time of reduction in real resources. The tragedy is that for years a small number of young, privileged people have gone to university and had all the resources they needed. At the very time when older people start to go in significant numbers, higher education is being starved of resources."
Reduction in resources means, first, financial hardship. "Discretionary grants have been a casualty of the financial crisis in local government. And even mandatory grants do not go anywhere towards keeping a family." It also means that the special needs of mature students are not being met, according to Mr West. "These students are asking basic questions of their lives. They need a quality relationship with tutors. This now has to be limited. Lecturers no longer have the time to give them the help they need."
Universities do not always take the special needs of mature students into account. Three-fifths are part time, and the full-timers generally have other calls on their time, such as children or the need to earn money, or both.
Mr West says: "These are students who have to manage many aspects of their lives outside university. Some may live some distance from the institution in which they study. Yet, for example, they often find that timetabling scatters their programme through the week, because timetables are constructed for full-time residential students."
The needs of mature students should have acted as a spur to lecturers to find new methods. In fact, after an initial spurt, Mr West thinks that lecturers have gone back to "the methods they have known and loved". There was also a hope among some adult education specialists that they would have an effect on university life, infecting younger students with their sense of purpose, motivation and questioning approach. This too seems to have been dis-appointed. Al-though Mr West finds that lecturers like to have them in seminars, as soon as the seminar is over they tend to go home to their families.
If Britain has a two-tier higher education system - traditional universities being the first tier - then mature students are still overwhelmingly to be found in the second. In 1992, 80 per cent of mature first-degree students, and 98 per cent of other mature undergraduates, were in the former polytechnics and in colleges, a proportion virtually unchanged since 1982. Only 60 per cent of young students were in polytechnics or colleges.
Polytechnics and colleges saw by far the biggest proportional increase in mature students between 1982 and 1992. They also increased the proportion of mature students who are full time in those 10 years. In the traditional universities this proportion actually decreased.
All the figures suggest that Mrs Shephard's "revolution" is happening in the new universities and the colleges, and not in traditional universities. Even more disturbing, it looks as though the more prestigious the institution, the fewer mature students they have. Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London have very few. Just 2 per cent of Oxford's undergraduates are currently mature students. But London's new universities have proportions well above the national proportion of 51 per cent: 59 per cent at the University of Westminster, 63 per cent at the University of the South Bank, 74 per cent at North London University.
And some of the students are very mature. North London University boasts one student over 80, and several in their fifties and sixties.
Motives for people giving up work and making a heavy financial sacrifice to take up studying are varied, but many hope to improve their chance of a better job. They are often disappointed.
Graduate unemployment has now been joined by what is called "underemployment" - graduates taking non-graduate jobs in order to make a living. For mature students this can mean the heartbreaking decision to go back to the old boring job from which they hoped their degree would rescue them.
Mature students may find it hardest of all, because some employers still prefer the traditional young graduate. Many of the mature students investigated by Linden West have found it very hard to get graduate jobs, and Mr West concludes that there is considerable ageism in the graduate job market.
But if ageism is alive and kicking, sexism is decreasing, at least in terms of admissions. Nearly half of today's mature students are women. In 1990, for the first time, women full-time mature students constituted exactly half of the total. It might be worrying that women slipped back slightly in the subsequent two years, but it seems probable that this was a blip rather than a trend.