FE can show HE how to support disadvantaged adult learners

4 Dec 2021, 6:00

A trusted adviser makes a huge difference to re-engaging adult learners with education, writes Abi Angus

New research recently showed us that disadvantaged adults are almost twice as likely not to have engaged in learning than their more advantaged peers. 

The findings from the Learning and Work Institute found 37 per cent of adults in the two least advantaged socio-economic groups have not taken part in any learning since leaving full-time education, compared with only 18 per cent of wealthier peers. 

One of the big barriers for disadvantaged adults is accessing higher education. 

At the Centre for Education and Youth, we have turned our attention to the experiences of adult learners in a recent project for the “Aspire To HE” partnership in the Black Country, based at the University of Wolverhampton. 

Aspire To HE found there was a gap in support for adults to re-engage in education. So we worked with these adults to carry out research and develop a ‘knowledge curriculum’ with corresponding resources, to help them re-engage.  

We undertook interviews and workshops with current and potential adult learners in HE and expert practitioners, alongside a review of existing research. 

This gave us a clear picture of the barriers to HE facing these adults, and good practice to improve access for mature students.  

‘Key role for FE staff’

Our research focused on identifying knowledge that adult learners need to be able to make informed decisions. The ‘knowledge curriculum’ sets this out, taking learners from considering courses that suit their interests, circumstances and career aspirations, through to application stage. 

For many adults considering HE, just knowing how to find information presented a major barrier. Many of the people we spoke to highlighted the key role that staff in FE colleges, widening participation departments and adult education services play.  

Some of our interviewees described the difference it made to be supported by a trusted adviser. One interviewee was about to begin a nursing degree: 

“It was [my advisor] who first explained [the process] to me, from the certificate that I need [for the course]… [what to do] if I don’t have maths and English, what I need to have, and this and that… She put me through, from stage one to the end [of the application process].” 

Others spoke about how difficult they had found applying without someone to talk to. One of our interviewees was just about to begin a degree, but had been delayed after enrolling on a course to gain qualifications for HE access that they already held. 

They believed that accessing tailored advice during the application process would have made it easier: 

“I wanted to go [to HE] because I always wanted to further my education. But because I was new in the [English education] system, everything was new. I didn’t know who to turn to or where to go.” 

Understanding HE processes can feel a daunting task. But FE colleges could ensure that at least one member of staff can provide the specialist advice that adult learners often need. 

Our research also identified a need for advice on finance, such as childcare costs, benefits, or grant and bursary opportunities, for example. Unless this information is provided, adult learners might see the cost of HE as a deterrent, as one current student explained: 

“I was concerned about the financial side of [HE]  ̶  paying for it. I think the access course was about £3,000. I just assumed, when I was told that, that I would have to pay for it and I thought, ‘Well, how am I going to pay for that?’” 

Access is not the end of the journey though, and our research also highlighted the importance of support within universities. While FE colleges often do well supporting adult learners, higher education institutions can assume that learners are all beginning from similar starting points ̶ failing to recognise social, financial and learning needs specific to mature students.  

So FE colleges are well placed to share best practice for supporting these learners with local HEIs. 

Policymakers should refocus energies on enabling adult learners to access HE. These learners deserve a far better deal.

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