Education serving mature learners needs to respect their widely differing goals and backgrounds

How the UCAS data from results day can help us understand the needs of mature learners and inform the thinking around the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. 

This year’s UCAS data and analysis from results day this year contains interesting findings for many different groups of students who have got just entered clearing or had their offers confirmed from UK higher education institutions this August – not least for mature students. While numbers of mature students across the country have decreased by about 3,000 between 2022 and 2023, the reduction in student numbers overall means that learners aged over 21 have remained at around 14% of the total body of accepted applicants. In London, numbers of accepted applicants over 21 have actually increased slightly. The change from 8,840 to 9,060 individuals is small but it is an interesting trend for the London sector to chew on, as London is one of only three areas of the UK to see this number increase between 2022 and 2023.  

During the pandemic years, the UCAS entry statistics for mature students present a mixed picture. London continues to educate a larger proportion of the country’s mature learners than any other English region – 16% of accepted applicants over 21 in both 2019 and 2023 according to UCAS’ data dashboard. London institutions offering a wide range of courses have particular goals of educating adults in their local area to increase the numbers of people qualified to meet local skills shortages across many disciplines in particular teaching, nursing and other areas of healthcare. When we look at the subjects mature learners are studying this year, we see that while numbers of applications to study healthcare have dropped across all age groups following highs during the pandemic, subjects allied to medicine remain the most popular disciplines with applicants aged 21 and over. 2023’s cohort of 19,370 individuals over 21 accepted to study healthcare across the UK is a fall from the heights of the pandemic years but is still slightly over 2019’s figure.  

The ups and downs in mature learner numbers tell us something about how many different forces have pushed them in different directions during this time. While furlough and working from home may have given some learners more time to study, others will have been affected by financial strain, increased caring responsibilities and the need to supervise children learning at home. For learners of different backgrounds, age groups, and digital literacy, the shift to online learning may have made studying much easier or much harder. Some of the 2020 commentary and analysis articles, like this example from the Guardian, use case studies of individuals to illustrate some of the reasons people had for wanting to study as mature students during this time as well as the barriers they faced. Consequently, summarising the experience of mature students during the last few years is a hard task, when there have been as many different experiences as there are different learners.  

At the same time as lockdown has changed the circumstances in which mature learners study, the government’s new focus on Lifelong Learning has changed the position of mature learners in higher education policy and government planning. Following a consultation in 2022, the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) was announced with the intention of creating “a culture of upskilling and retraining” among learners of all ages. Many around the HE sector will be looking at this year’s application numbers to understand the situation for mature learners as they get ready for the introduction of the LLE in 2025.  

When the London HE sector looks at this year’s UCAS numbers for mature learners, the data we have so far at this stage in the cycle might provoke as many new questions as it does answers. Mature learners are a hugely diverse group, including those a handful of years out of secondary school and those well into retirement, and students with all different career goals, prior qualifications, employment statuses, and budgets to fund their studies. If this year’s UCAS data tells us anything, it is that education serving mature learners will need to respect their widely differing goals and backgrounds. London is the UK’s most diverse city and its LLE rollout for adult learners will need to be ready to celebrate and adjust to all those mature learners’ goals.  

This blog has been written by Emily Dixon, Programmes, Communications & Research Officer at London Higher.