The Society for Research into Higher Education

Please can we actually do something to arrest the decline in the number of disadvantaged adult learners in universities?

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By John Butcher

As the UK higher education sector contemplates its New Year resolutions, let me put in an urgent plea for universities to address an unequivocal failure in attempts to widen participation: the potential disappearance of adult learners from English HE. HESA (2017) report a 61% decline in numbers of mature part-time and full-time learners in HE since 2010. Since adult learners are disproportionately likely to be from disadvantaged or under-represented groups, this should be deeply worrying for university leaders committed to widening participation, as well as to a government espousing social mobility. Imagine the furore if female student numbers dropped by 61%, or BME numbers…

In the dog days of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), Les Ebdon, reporting on monitoring of the 2015/16 access agreements, noted: ‘… there is no sign of improvement in access for mature and part-time learners, which continues to be a grave concern … little or no progress has been made against a substantial proportion of targets for mature and part-time students. This is unacceptable.

£170 million is predicted to be spent by universities on outreach activities aimed at school pupils (OFFA, 2017). However, as we enter a period in which the 18 year-old population is dropping – and not expected to recover until 2024 (Office for National Statistics, 2017) – it seems myopic to focus on such a narrow conceptualisation of outreach. By targeting only school pupils, universities are excluding many potential learners who currently lack fair access to HE.

In a paper for the 2017 SRHE Research Conference, I argued universities can do much more to target resources at widening the participation of adult learners. Discussions with adult learners reveal no lack of aspiration. Rather, barriers include a fear of the cost, risk-aversion around debt, a perception that many universities are too inflexible, allied to a lack of confidence around their own ability. My research, funded and published by OFFA, offered five case studies, in which four contrasting universities reported on the impact of their outreach activities designed to meet the needs of adult learners. Three critical approaches to working with adults were identified:

  1. Preparatory Programmes
  • The Open University designed a Science, Technology and Maths (STEM) Access module to prepare adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress to their first undergraduate Science module. Evaluation indicated adult learner confidence and studentship skills had been enhanced through embedded skills development, supported by 1-1 telephone tutoring. Crucially, it was improved competence in maths skills (delivered through ‘little and often’ interdisciplinary themes) which enabled subsequent success.
  • Birkbeck, University of London offered a Higher Education Introductory Studies (HEIS) course as a pathway into their UG degree in Social Sciences. The need for alternative pathways to degree study, such as Certificates, was emphasised to meet the needs of adult students with multiple WP characteristics, including those for whom English was not their first language.
  1. Take learning to where the adult learners are
  • Bristol University use community-based outreach with adults lacking conventional qualifications. This initiative included co-designed tasters with organisations working with disadvantaged adults. Psychological and financial barriers were addressed in the Foundation Year, but re-emerged as obstacles for adults who progressed to the UG degree programme.
  • Leeds University sustains a Lifelong Learning Centre which targets outreach activities in low participation neighbourhoods. Three-year progression statistics demonstrate the importance of better Information, Advice and Guidance to counter the randomness of progression opportunities for adults, and the value of peer support from adults from similar backgrounds.
  1. Virtual first steps
  • The Open University produced new free online resources: Part-time Education for Adults Returning to Learn (PEARL), as the ‘go-to’ guide through the plethora of pathways available for adult learners. In addition, six free online taster courses were produced, with learners motivated to continue by collecting digital badges as they successfully complete each section.

Different university missions mean that institutions differ wildly in their strategic commitment to adult learners. An evaluation matrix was produced to help decision-makers prioritise where outreach resources might be targeted. The toolkit had three iterative steps: (1) a ‘health-check on institutional culture – self-evaluate the extent to which a university has a ‘climate’ in which adult learners are likely to thrive; (2) a reflective tool to garner institutional intelligence – evaluate the appropriateness of outreach for adult learners; (3) a framework in which to explore personalised understanding of the impact of outreach engagement – capturing ‘learning gain’ and learner transformation.

Adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are a difficult group for universities to reach, since their needs are heterogeneous. But universities are missing a key element in the creation of a diverse student body if adults are ignored. A bolder use of outreach resources to widen participation, taking HE learning to where the adults are, would benefit all. 

SRHE member Dr John Butcher is Associate Director (Curriculum and Access) at the Open University. He is Managing Editor of the international journal Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning.


HESA (2017) Higher education student enrolments and qualifications obtained at higher education providers in the United Kingdom 2015/16 (online).  Available at [Accessed 5 June 2017].

Office for Fair Access (2017) Strategic Guidance Developing your 2018-19 Access Agreement (online).   Available at  [Accessed 5 June 2017].

Office for National Statistics (2017) ‘Population Projections’ (online).  Available at [Accessed 5 June 2017].


Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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