In the last year the OfS, the government, and all three major UK political parties have called for greater opportunities for adults in higher education. But whilst the political consensus – and sectoral will – to do this exists, what are some proven strategies for engaging prospective mature students? Charlotte Barratt, UK Student Recruitment Officer (Postgraduate and Mature) at the University of Leicester, shares some advice.
Since the changes to student finance and the decrease in the 18-year-old population, recruiting mature students into HE has become a higher priority for many HE institutions. However, the amount of resources dedicated to this task varies wildly between them. I am a widening participation officer at the University of Leicester. My focus is on the support and recruitment of mature students into HE and our own University. There are few like me who have this particular remit. Many take on working with mature students as only part of a wider brief. I was privileged to be able to build my role from a few foundations and research into new audiences and the educational cycles of our local mature students.
When I began my role, I was directed to a few key figures and universities that have excellent relationships with their mature students. Working groups and fora, such as the AccessHE Mature and Part-time Students Forum, were ideal for sharing ideas and getting advice. When it comes to the engaging prospective mature students, you can be confident that someone out there in the sector has tried these already and has insights to offer. When I first held a mature student open afternoon for instance, only 15 people attended. So, I asked around and other institutions recommended putting on a few special talks at main open days. This proved much more successful and is now an integral part of encouraging mature students to apply to us.
I quickly discovered that every institution is different and every audience has different requirements. Birkbeck is hailed as a front-runner in the provision of education to mature students in London. They are “the evening university”. You can work in the day and study in the evening. From my experience at Leicester, doing anything in the evening leads to empty seats! Potential students in Leicester would like to do most things during the working day. This led me to build relationships with our local colleges providing Access to HE Diplomas. For anyone looking for a good place to start building relationships with mature students, this is where I’d recommend going.
Knowing your audience is key to getting ahead with engaging with potential mature learners. Once someone is at a college or adult education centre, they have already made the decision to continue their learning journey. Engaging with this audience should work in any area: find your feeder courses and colleges. Mature learners often get back into education at a point of change in their lives – redundancy, family changes or just because something needs to be different. Also look at careers fairs and other places that people might visit at these junctures.
If you begin with your captive college audiences, you will find it easier to build on the less obvious local audiences. At Leicester we now provide a comprehensive and constantly growing set of guidance sessions for Access to HE students. This means I will see a group between three and five times during their course before welcoming them to the University at the start of term. This reassurance for the students gives them the confidence to make choices that are right for them and to show them that they will thrive at university. We have Mature Student Ambassadors on hand to be role models.
I have also tried things that have not had an impact at all! Events at which only three or four people show up, for example. On those occasions the attendees have left with a very personal experience but we were planning for higher numbers. Rethink and retry has been a mantra here. Don’t be afraid to try. Find out what will work for your institution. We have a stable mature student community at Leicester with continued hopes that it will keep growing over the years. All we can do is keep trying, talking it through and building relationships in the local communities.