13 March 2019

Last week, the Office for Students released an independent report they commissioned on the recruitment of mature students to nursing, midwifery and allied health courses. If you haven’t yet read the 213 page report in full, here’s a quick run through of what we learned from the report.

Before we start, however, let’s set the scene. According to HESA, the number of mature students (defined as 21+) in undergraduate level higher education is broadly unchanged from 2015 to 2017, the last year data is available. Despite this, mature student participation in subjects allied to medicine has dropped from 18.7% to 17.6% of overall mature undergraduate study, whereas business has seen an uplift of 12.5% to 13.2%.

So what can we learn about why this is happening and what we can do about it?

Lesson 1: Show me the money

It’s somewhat unsurprising that the report confirms that cost of study is a deterrent, given that many mature students, including those with children, are already under pressure to make ends meet. Today’s mature students are likely to need to work alongside study, particularly in cities like London where the cost of living is high. Apprenticeships are attractive to students in these areas, but so too are strong links to study-friendly work opportunities, especially for staff already in care delivery who want to develop their careers. Supporting wrap-around employment would likely be an effective intervention to increase mature applicant interest in London and elsewhere.

The study also repeatedly highlights problems mature students have in understanding how student loans work and how it will impact their pay in the future. Some mature students felt that repositioning the loan as an extra ‘tax’ gave them the confidence they needed to pursue their degrees, but understandably wanted reliable information on how much of their paycheck would be lost to fee repayments. Given the relatively low-cost and high effectiveness of social media engagement with prospective mature students, the question becomes how FE and HE institutions, alongside other stakeholders, could help get this message out.

Lesson 2: The known unknowns

Yet another unsurprising finding, but the report highlighted how familiarity and a low-risk appetite impacted present mature application patterns. Mature students appeared to be gravitating towards fields that were both familiar and ‘wide enough’ to increase the likelihood of employment and progression, rather than fields that in actuality offer higher pay and more regular working hours. They also tended to gravitate towards courses where they had a direct encounter with a professional, mainly through life experience or friendships. This could evidence the potential of one-to-one outreach, but also the lack of broader careers advice and awareness.

The report also mentioned on several occasions that when a mature person had made up their mind to pursue a certain course – often made two or three years before applying – it was hard to rechannel them. There were three effective ways, however, to encourage mature prospects to consider the harder to fill courses: emphasise self-employment and 9-to-5 work opportunities; highlight salaries; and host taster sessions that can bust myths about certain professions. One example related to repositioning podiatry as being less about feet (which is sometimes known) and more about helping sports professionals (which is less commonly known), which helped to turn the unknown of enjoying the role into a known.

In short, greater awareness of and response to the known unknowns mature students face will address the unknown unknown of mature student numbers in the future, as well as the known knowns of workforce shortages and underrepresentation from certain groups. Or even shorter, it’s important to get a positive and clear message out.

Lesson 3: Row, row, row the boat

The final takeaway from the report was the need for tripartite co-operation – governmental, employer and education provider – as well as the evidence that there is still work to be done. The report reveals that trusts don’t particularly see mature student recruitment as either their issue or priority, but they want a workforce that is stable and representative of their locality – which is exactly what mature students are likely to be. Educators want to expand mature student recruitment as part of widening participation and supporting course viability – but the financial incentives and broader support from the government have diminished. And despite apprenticeships showing promise in developing mature talent, regulation is making it expensive for trusts to deliver them. One single, national, joined-up strategy with defined priorities would certainly help.

To sum the three lessons up, it comes down to thinking about the totality of the student experience – the practicalities of study, the reasons for course selection, and the career aspirations they might hold – and working together to meet these needs and wants. Sensible policy change, particularly around student support and health apprenticeship regulation, would help, but so too would pragmatic interventions in supporting ‘earn and learn’ schemes as well as increasing familiarity with the student loan system and certain well-paid and flexible career paths.

The full report by Martketwise Strategies Ltd can be found here: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/research-on-recruitment-of-mature-students-to-nursing-midwifery-and-allied-health-courses/

Author’s note: In April, London Higher will publish maps showing the impact of the bursary reform on mature applications to London’s universities. Follow @londonheg to access the maps once they are available.