Higher Education Is For Parents Too

August 2, 2021, by Emily Dixon in conversation with Karen Western, Brunel University

It is hard to talk about Higher Education (HE) in 2021 without hearing the phrase ‘lifelong learning’ – a central element of the government’s rhetoric, funding and plans, and widely agreed to be a good idea. Whether it is skills training, degrees or apprenticeships, the government is backing education for adults strongly in its race to ‘build back better.’


Lifelong learning and adult education do not need to mean traditional degrees, delivered full time for three years at a traditional university. There is a huge range of opportunities to build skills outside university degrees, but for many mature students it is a degree that they want, either full time or part time. Mature students’ demand for degrees is enormous and still increasing. In the field of Subjects Allied to Medicine alone, 2021 saw over 140,000 applications on UCAS from learners over the age of twenty-one. In 2020, the figure was only just over 97,000.


It is a great thing to encourage mature learners into education into HE, but dangerous to assume there is one homogenous group over over-twenty-one-year-olds whose needs we can meet with a single list of tick boxes. Sub-groups of adult learners have different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory, sets of needs and making them feel welcome in HE means taking the time to understand all their different circumstances, as Dr Christine Barratt of the University of Leicester told us back in June.


Karen Western works at Brunel University as the Widening Access Officer for Care Leavers, Estranged Students, Mature Students and Young Carers. She took the time to speak to me about the situation, experiences and needs of parents entering HE as mature students, and what we can do to make universities the best fit we can for them.


I start by asking roughly what proportion of mature applicants she’s worked with have been parents, and immediately come up against a problem. It can be difficult to find out, she says, because a fair number of parents won’t tell the university at all unless it is causing problems in their course. There are a few different reasons for this, including worrying it will make their application look bad, thinking it won’t impact on their studies so it isn’t worth mentioning, or not realising the support and benefits they could be entitled to while studying. Some parents will be confident in their ability to manage the workload around their parenting responsibilities until they see the schedule and realise childcare might become an issue.


If parents are finding out partway through their degree that they could have been eligible for practical and financial support and assistance with childcare, and they are only able to access it after they are already having problems with their work, this is clearly a problem.


From her experience doing community work, Karen tells me the perception that parents are ‘hard to reach’ or ‘difficult targets for outreach’ is short sighted. If we understand where parents are in the community and what they might need from HE, we can reach them. Particularly if institutions have Student Ambassadors who are mature students, they may already be a part of these community spaces and be sharing PTA meetings with other parents who are interested in HE.


Mature Student Ambassadors and the conversations they have with parents in their own spaces can help us understand what prospective learners see as the benefits and challenges of entering HE. The logistics can be daunting; mountains of paperwork are required to apply and confirm a place on a course, and access funding and accommodation. It can take a disheartening length of time to get to the stage of filling in the UCAS application, if a pre-entry course or A-levels at a further education college are necessary.


Parents can be hard-hit by digital poverty in ways that escape the headlines. If a family only has access to one laptop, and the children need it for their schoolwork, the parents’ chances of being able to use it for university classes at certain times is slim.


Perhaps biggest of all, there is the issue of confidence. Parents need to be very sure they will be able to complete the degree, and not just complete it, complete it in a way that will make the investment worth it and improve their life and the lives of their children. That amount of self-belief can be a big ask for someone who has been out of education for years or decades.


That’s a fair number of challenges. What about the benefits? When Karen worked on a project with young mothers who had dropped out of school to care for their children, she found that the biggest quality all of them had in common was a desire to make their children’s lives better than theirs, to be good parents and make the most of any opportunity to enrich their children’s education. Bringing them onto university campuses and helping them to see the opportunities, the skills they could build and the community they could find at university.


Showing people the practical content of life on a university campus can also help break down bad associations people might have had with education from school, particularly if they left school early or, in the case of the young parents Karen has worked with, had to drop out to become parents. It is a big ask to go back into university when your last memories of education were negative. Using outreach activities to build up positive associations with HE can make a degree look a lot more achievable


The benefits, after all, can be huge. Karen tells me about students who had previously been working part time in the service industry completing a degree in an Allied Health subject and going into jobs paying £35,000 after graduation. Nursing particularly, a perennial favourite with mature students, offers close-to-guaranteed employment in an industry that is not going anywhere. Karen tells me about parents looking to change their life and increase their earning potential after a divorce or other major life change who can access funding, family housing and a path to a skilled, lifelong career.


With government investment in adult education so prominently on the table and the job market recovering after pandemic disruption, Karen tells me what a big opportunity we as an industry have to make big changes for parents in education. By educating and investing in parents, we help not only them, but also their children’s education and environments. Introducing more flexible provision and opening up our pictures of ‘what a university students looks like’ benefits everybody, so if we have the chance to fund these changes, we should take it. Now is the time to invest in mature learners for a more inclusive future.