A Profile of Mature Students in Higher Education and An Analysis of Equality Issues - Kathleen Lynch

Introduction: The Importance of Lifelong Learning

A series of Higher Education Authority (HEA) studies over the past fifteen years show that there has been a dramatic increase in the rate of retention to higher education among school leavers; yet there has not been a comparable rise in the participation rates of full-time mature students (Clancy, 1995). In fact, the participation rate of mature student entrants to higher education via the CAO/CAS1 system has remained relatively static over the period. In 1980, just over 3.5% of CAO/CAS entrants were mature, while the comparable figure for 1993/94 was 3.4%.

While there has been a substantial increase in the number of mature students in part-time programmes in recent years (Technical Working Group, 1995), socially and economically disadvantaged mature students have not been the major beneficiaries of this educational expansion. Greater mature student participation has not, in other words, given rise to any significant increase in the representation in higher education of disadvantaged groups. This situation is not exclusive to Ireland; it has also been identified as an issue in Britain and in the OECD2 countries generally (Gallagher et al., 1993; OECD, 1987).

There are compelling reasons, however, why all adults, and in particular socially and economically disadvantaged adults, should be enabled to participate in higher education.

First, there are compelling economic reasons. The creation of wealth is no longer solely dependent on land, labour and capital as traditionally defined. A crucial role is played by knowledge-based capital, as distinct from financial or material capital. In a post-industrial era, knowledge, and increasingly credentialised knowledge, is a major form of capital in its own right. The Irish economy is, for a variety of historical and political reasons, even more reliant on knowledge-based capital than other economies. It lacks the industrial infrastructure that underpins the powerful economies of core capitalist states. Consequently it needs to develop a form of capital for which it has a sound infrastructure, namely education.

It is, moreover, especially important that it develop the educational potential of adults as well as school-leavers, because adults are already fully integrated into both society and the economy. As the Culliton Report (1992) observed, Irish industry (and indeed agriculture, services etc.) can be successful only to the extent that it meets and excels the standards of international best practice in a given field. The Report claims there is little evidence that firms in Ireland are providing systematic in-house re-education and training for their employees (for a variety of reasons) at a desirable level. In the light of this, provision must be made in the higher and further education sectors for the recurrent education of adults.

While adults from upper socio-economic groups are likely to have availed of higher education opportunities as school leavers, or are in a financial position to re-enter higher education to update their knowledge in particular fields, neither opportunity is generally available to those from lower socio-economic groups. The latter lack both initial and recurrent access to higher education. Their contribution to society and the economy is limited by their lack of opportunity to develop their knowledge-based capital. For those who are not in employment, further education is generally the only way in which they can re-enter the economy on an equal footing with participating citizens.

Before examining the precise barriers and inequalities facing adults, particularly low income adults, in higher education, it is necessary to present a profile of those who are currently mature students.

A Profile of Undergraduate Mature Students in Ireland

A range of data on mature students was compiled by the Technical Working Group for the Steering Committee on the Future Development of Higher Education (1995). There were, in all, four sets of data collected with the assistance of the Colleges and the CAO/CAS:

  1. CAO/CAS data on mature applicants for 1993/94
  2. Data supplied by colleges on mature entrants for 1993/94
  3. Data supplied by colleges on mature students attending 1992/93
  4. Small survey of individual mature students attending 1993/94

The profile of mature students presented below is based on these data sources. The precise source is cited as appropriate.

General Profile of Mature Entrants

Status, Gender and Colleges Attended

There were 6,665 mature entrants to higher education courses in 1993/94. This figure includes only those students who were undertaking recognised third-level courses in the colleges, ranging from certificates to diplomas and degrees. It does not include those on access courses to higher education.

All sectors of higher education have a reasonable proportion of mature students, with thirty-five per cent entering the Universities, twenty-five per cent the Dublin Institute of Technology Colleges and twenty-one per cent the Regional Technical Colleges in 1993/94. The remaining nineteen per cent of entrants are in other institutes of higher education, including the private colleges. Research on part-time mature students shows them to be more strongly concentrated outside the university sector than full-time students (Technical Working Group, 1995).

The pattern of representation of mature students across the colleges is not dissimilar to that in Britain, although the concentration of mature students outside the university sector is greater in Britain than in the Republic of Ireland: in 1992, eighty per cent of all first-degree mature students in Britain were studying at Polytechnics ('new' Universities) and other colleges, as were ninety-eight per cent of all other undergraduate mature students (DFE, 1994, Table 6).

The majority, seventy-five per cent, of mature entrants are part-time; of these, fifty-nine per cent are men. Fifty per cent of all full-time students are men. Overall, women are under-represented among mature entrants: forty-three per cent of mature entrants are women, compared with fifty-one per cent of school-leaver entrants.

Table 1- Profile of Mature Student Entrants 1993/94

Estimates based on data available on mature students for 1992/1993 and 1993/94 indicate that while approximately eighty-five per cent of part-time entrants are mature, only 5.4% of full time entrants are.3

Mode of participation: comparative data

Even allowing for the fact that mature students in Britain and Northern Ireland are calculated as mature at twenty-one years of age as opposed to twenty-three, and that the demographic profile of the Republic is different to that of Britain in particular, with a larger concentration in the younger age cohorts, Table 2 shows that there are great disparities between the participation rates of mature students in the Republic of Ireland on the one hand and Britain and Northern Ireland on the other.

Table 2 - Mature Entrants as a percentage of all entrants U.K and R.O.I

Mature students are over five times better represented in colleges in Britain and Northern Ireland than in the Republic of Ireland. The differential rates of participation between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are especially noticeable as the demographic profile is not that dissimilar. Furthermore, as distance education entrants are included in the Republic of Ireland data but Open University data is not included in the calculations for Britain and Northern Ireland, the differentials may be even greater than Table 2 suggests.


The study of entrants across all colleges in 1993/94 found that fifty-two per cent of mature students were between the ages of twenty-three and thirty. In fact, all the data collected from the colleges and the CAO/CAS shows that seventy per cent of both applicants and attending students are between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-five. Only fifteen per cent of all third-level entrants in 1993/94 were over forty years of age (Table 3).

Table 3 - Age Profile of mature Student Entrants

Because of the lack of analogous cross-national data, it is not possible to make a direct comparison between the age profile of mature students in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere. The data from Britain does, however, indicate that one-third of mature students entering higher education in 1992 were between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-four years. The breakdown for the over twenty-five age group is not available. Earlier data from the OECD (1987, p.35) also shows that "the typical mature student is relatively young" (i.e. between the age twenty-five and thirty-five). The OECD study did not classify those under twenty-five as mature students.


The majority (fifty-seven per cent) of mature student entrants in 1993/94 were men, as were the majority of mature students attending higher education colleges in 1992/93. The gender differential is most evident among part-time students, where fifty-nine per cent of mature entrants and two-thirds of all mature attendees were men. Gender parity appears to be approached only among full-time mature entrants (Table 4).

Table 4 - Gender Profile of Undergraduate Mature Students in R.O.I.

The gender profile of mature students in the Republic of Ireland is quite similar to that in Britain (Table 5), although the differentials in favour of men are more pronounced in Ireland: fifty-two per cent of all British entrants in 1992 were men as were fifty-seven per cent of Irish entrants in 1993/94. The overall gender differential is accounted for by the more favourable representation of women among part-time entrants in Britain, where forty-nine per cent of all part-time entrants are women as compared with forty-one per cent in the Republic of Ireland. While there is gender parity among full-time entrants in the Republic of Ireland, however, with fifty per cent of all such entrants being women, in Britain just forty-seven per cent of full-time undergraduate entrants were women in 1992.4

Table 5 - Gender Profile of Undergraduate Mature Students in Britain, 82 and 92

The rate of increase of women's participation in all higher education institutions in Britain was, however, greater than that of men between 1982 and 1992.

Data from OECD countries5 shows that in most countries from which data is available, women are under-represented among mature students (France, Germany, Austria and Australia are examples). The exceptions are Sweden, Finland and the United States. There is some evidence to suggest that female participation is greatest where women's participation in paid employment is highest (OECD, 1987).

Route of Entry

Data on selection criteria for entry to higher education was available only for full-time students. The data obtained from the colleges on the 1993/94 mature entrants shows that while forty-three per cent were accepted on the basis of mature years, a sizeable minority, twenty-nine per cent, entered on the basis of the Leaving Certificate.

Table 6 - Route of Entry as Defined by the Colleges - Mature Student Entrants 93/94

In interpreting the findings, it should be noted that the route of entry reported here is based on the colleges' own definition of student mode of entry. Students accepted on the basis of mature years, for example, could have had (and a number did have) a Leaving Certificate, but were accepted by the colleges on the basis of age rather than Leaving Certificate grades. Others were accepted on the basis of Leaving Certificate grades even though they were mature. The latter group tended to be those who had higher Leaving Certificate grades.

Socio-Economic Status

Only a little over one-fifth (twenty-two per cent) of mature student entrants to higher education are drawn from the four lowest socio-economic groups, although the latter comprise forty-four per cent of the general adult population (Table 7).

Whether socio-economic status is measured in terms of the students' or parents' background, it is clear that mature students are more likely to come from the 'intermediate non-manual' group than from any other single socio-economic group. This is especially the case if socio-economic status is measured in terms of the students' own occupational background. The other principal groups from which mature students are drawn are lower professionals and employers/managers While the participation ratio for salaried employees shows that they are the group which is most over-represented in the mature student population relative to the national population, they nevertheless comprise less than ten per cent of mature student entrants.

The strong concentration of mature students in the intermediate non-manual and the lower professional groups suggests that the socio-economic profile of mature students is somewhat different to that of school-leaver entrants. There is a stronger concentration of lower middle-class groups in the mature student population, and a weaker concentration of higher professionals, farmers and skilled manual workers in particular.

The research conducted by the Technical Working Group on part-time students provides corroborative evidence for these findings. The Technical Working Group found that thirty-two per cent of part-time students (eighty-five per cent of whom are mature) were from intermediate non-manual backgrounds, while twenty-three per cent were from lower professional backgrounds (Technical Working Group, 1995).

Table 7 - A Comparison of Rates of Participation for Mature Entrants and All Entrants on the Basis of Socio-Economic Status

It is useful at this point to make some comparisons between the findings of the HEA study of CAO/CAS entrants in 1992 (Clancy, 1995) and the Technical Working Group findings on 1993/94 mature entrants (Table 7). One must bear in mind, however, that the HEA data on all entrants is based on parents' socio-economic status, while the Technical Working Group data on mature entrants is based on data provided by the colleges on the students' own socio-economic status. Data was available on the socio-economic status of 1359 mature entrants in 1993/94.

What is evident from the available data is that farmers and higher professionals are much better represented among the general entrant body than among mature students: their respective participation ratios are 1.35 and 2.47 among all entrants as compared with 0.12 and 0.96 among mature entrants. Salaried employees are the group with the highest participation ratio among mature students (3.6, compared with 1.48 among all entrants) followed by employers and managers (2.4, compared with 1.86 among all entrants), lower professionals (2.13, compared with 1.47 among all entrants) and intermediate non-manual workers (1.44, compared with 0.91 among all entrants).

Lower socio-economic groups are only marginally better represented among mature entrants than among school-leaver entrants, although their rate of representation does not reach parity (1:1) for any of the four lowest socio-economic groups (Table 7). Perhaps what most distinguishes the mature students from school-leaver entrants, therefore, is the former's stronger lower-middle-class profile; the representation of working-class groups among mature students is generally not any better than it is among school-leaver entrants; this holds for both part-time and full-time students (Technical Working Group, 1995).

Principal Economic Status of Full-Time Students

A small survey of individual full-time mature students was undertaken by the Technical Working Group. A random sample of three hundred and seventy mature students were surveyed by postal questionnaire in seven different colleges; one hundred and ninety three (fifty-two per cent) responded.

Bearing in mind that the sample was small, what the study does indicate is that while the mature students are predominantly middle class, especially lower middle class, the majority of full-time students are without employment, with nineteen per cent being registered unemployed, twenty-six per cent defining themselves as unemployed but not registered, and fifteen per cent working full-time in the home without pay. Only thirty-one per cent of students reported their principal economic status as being in employment (Table 8). While it may seem inevitable that full-time students would not be in employment, an analysis of the relationship of year of study and length of unemployment shows that students' unemployment status is not simply a result of their giving up work to study full-time. Of those in their first year at college who were registered unemployed, eighty per cent had been unemployed for at least two years; twenty-seven per cent of those in first year who were unemployed but not registered, moreover, had also been unemployed

Table 8 - Survey of Individual Full-Time Mature Students 93/94 - Principle Economic Status

for at least two years.

What these findings suggest is that many full-time mature students are people who are on the margins of the paid labour market. They may have a lower-middle-class designation, as defined by current or previous employment, but this does not mean they have any security of employment.

Educational Background

All the available data on mature students indicates that a clear majority of them have a Leaving Certificate, albeit at a lower grade point average than school-leaver entrants. An analysis of mature student applicants through the CAO/CAS system in 1993/94 found that sixty-three per cent of those who accepted places had a Leaving Certificate. The study conducted by the Technical Working Group of full-time mature students also found that a majority of those attending college (seventy-eight per cent) had a Leaving Certificate, while the Technical Working Group survey of part-time students found that the highest level of qualification attained by eighty-four per cent of these students was a Leaving Certificate or some higher-level qualification.

Not only do a large proportion of mature students have a Leaving Certificate, a significant minority have post-secondary qualifications as well. The findings of the small survey of full-time students and the larger survey of part-time students undertaken by the Technical Working Group confirm this.

Table 9 - Survey of Educational Background of Individual Full-Time Mature Students 93/94

Table 9 shows that forty-four per cent (85) of the full-time students surveyed had either a professional qualification (such as nursing) already, or a recognised third-level certificate, diploma or degree. A further nineteen per cent (36) had attended other post-secondary courses or third-level access courses. The survey of part-time students (eighty-five per cent of whom were mature) undertaken by the Technical Working Group identified a similar pattern, with thirty-seven per cent of those surveyed having either a professional qualification, a certificate, diploma or degree already (Technical Working Group, 1995).

Motivations for Entry to Higher Education

Mature students are a more diverse group than traditional school-leaver entrants to higher education. Not only do they vary more in age, and in terms of certain social background variables such as education, they also vary considerably in their motivation for attending higher education. OECD research (1987) indicates that mature students can be broadly classified into four different groups based on these motivations. This is not to deny that certain people may have multiple motives for entering higher education.

  1. Second Chance Students. Those who enter higher education for the first time as adults in order to pursue mainstream studies leading to a full first degree, diploma or certificate and who did not have the opportunity - for social, economic or cultural reasons - to fully avail of higher education on leaving school. These students include people who wish to gain career advancement within employment, unemployed people, and women who have been working full-time in the home.
  2. Update Re-enter. Those who have attended higher education already but who re-enter to update their professional knowledge and acquire additional qualifications for career purposes. This includes people who are well integrated into the labour market and are in secure employment, those who are in insecure, temporary and/or part-time employment, people who are working at home, mostly women, and those who are currently unemployed for whatever reason.
  3. Work-related Courses. Those who may or may not have had higher education already but who enrol for professional purposes, especially in courses of short duration. This can include people from a range of levels within work organisations
  4. Personal Fulfilment. Those with or without previous experience of higher education whose primary interest in enrolling on courses is personal fulfilment.

While no major study has been conducted in Ireland on the motivations of mature entrants, the Technical Working Group's small study of full-time mature students did inquire about student motivations. When asked to state their primary reason for entering (or re-entering) higher education, work-related reasons emerged as the major motivating factor (Table 10). Half of the students gave specific work-related reasons for attending higher education.

Table 10 - Survey of Individual Full-Time Mature Students 93/94 Primary Reason for Return to Study

Even those who stated that their principal reason for entering higher education was to avail of the opportunity which was denied to them when they were young (twenty-four per cent) or that it was fulfilling a lifelong personal ambition (twenty-three per cent) did not rule out the importance of third-level education for improving work opportunities. In most cases, work-related reasons were stated as secondary motivations.

On the other hand, those who presented work-specific reasons as their primary motivation for entering higher education also mentioned other motivating factors, albeit not so strongly. There were no major gender differences in the reasons given for returning to study, with both women and men placing a strong emphasis on the job-related importance of qualifications.

Career-related reasons were also the principal motivations cited by part-time mature students for entering higher education (Technical Working Group, 1995).

Profiling the Mature Student: A Summary

The typical mature student in higher education, then, is a person under thirty-five years of age, who has completed the Leaving Certificate, is living in an urban area, and has not yet obtained a third-level qualification. She/he tends to be participating in higher education to improve career prospects. There is a reasonable probability, however, that the she/he may have some professional or post-secondary qualification already.

The person is most likely to come from a lower-middle-class background and is slightly more likely to be male than female. She/he is most likely to be a part-time student, and to be studying outside the university sector. There is an almost fifty per cent chance that she/he will be on a degree programme.

There is a difference, however, between the mature student who is part-time and the one who is full-time. The part-time mature student is slightly more likely to be a man than is the full-time student. While the part-time mature student is usually in employment, the typical full-time mature student defines her/himself as not being in employment.6 A considerable number of those registered as unemployed have, moreover, been unemployed for more than one year.

The available data suggests that lower income and/or marginalised groups are poorly represented in the mature-student sector, especially among part-time students. Yet there is evidence that, relative to school-leaver entrants, mature students are more likely to come from lower-middle-class backgrounds. An analysis of the principal economic status of full-time mature students shows especially that full-time higher education may be catering for relatively disadvantaged lower-middle-class groups, namely those who have some post-secondary education already but who are not in secure employment. It also caters for a small number of unemployed people, and of women who are full-time homeworkers.

There is a substantial body of people with post-secondary education and qualifications who are returning to full-time higher education. Their employment profile indicates that a significant number of these are either unemployed (although not always registered as such) or in insecure or low-paid employment.

One of the difficulties with recording the extent and nature of disadvantage among mature students is the fact that data is not collected systematically on this group; there appears to be no system in the colleges for tracking mature students beyond their first year. Nor is there a clear procedure for identifying other groups such as the unemployed,7 disabled students, lone parents or ethnic minorities. The lack of accurate data makes it impossible to develop a detailed understanding of the nuances of inequality and disadvantage across different sectors of the potential mature-student population. This is a phenomenon which was referred to in the OECD (1987) report, Adults in Higher Education.

The OECD research shows that the socio-economic profile of mature students internationally is quite similar to that in Ireland. A review of research on mature students in Britain confirms this trend; it finds that there is no evidence that increased provision for mature students per se has provided extra places for the socially and economically disadvantaged (Gallagher, Richards and Locke, 1993). It is clear, therefore, that if mature students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds are to avail of higher education, then specific supports and targets need to be put in place to achieve this.

The following section will examine the kind of strategies which need to be pursued, and the issues which need to be addressed, if adults who were unable to avail themselves of higher education when they were young are to get a 'first chance' in higher education.

The Policy Context: Equality Issues

It is not surprising to find that mature students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds are not adequately represented in higher education. Notwithstanding the work of bodies such as AONTAS8 in promoting greater equality for low-income groups in adult and further education, and the development of recent initiatives such as the Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme,9 at a national level there has been a rather laissez faire approach towards the promotion of mature student participation in higher education, especially among socially and economically disadvantaged groups. While the extension of the Higher Education Grants Scheme to mature students, the development of the Third Level Allowance Scheme,10 and the provision of limited supports for part-time students,11 are recent advances in this field, the reality is that access and participation for mature students in higher education remains difficult. The fact that lower socio-economic groups are very poorly represented in higher education at present is proof of this.

The absence of proactive policies - such as the provision of adequate financial support for adults in further and higher education, the development of flexible modes of delivery and assessment procedures, and the provision of adequate support and guidance services within colleges - has made it extremely difficult for the economically and socially disadvantaged mature student to enter and succeed within the system. In a competitive context where there is no equality of condition (that is, where differentials in wealth, income, power and privilege remain substantial), the relatively advantaged, both within and between socio-economic groups, win out over the relatively disadvantaged. This holds true for adult learners as much as for school leavers.

This section of the paper, therefore, will examine some of the barriers to equality of access and participation facing mature students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds in Ireland.

Social Class Inequality and Educational Disadvantage

In recent years, numerous reports and studies have been published which highlight the pervasive character of social class inequality in education in Ireland (Conference of Major Religious Superiors, 1992; The National Education Convention Secretariat, 1994; INTO, 1994; HEA, 1995; Department of Education, 1995; Clancy, 1995; Kellaghan et al., 1995; Lynch and O'Riordan, 1996). While the educational system itself has expanded and developed, and while enrolments in higher education have increased eleven-fold from 1950 to 1990, the fact remains that the social class profile of participants within higher education has not changed to any radical extent (Clancy, 1995). The same holds true in a wide variety of other countries (Shavit and Blossfeld, 1993; Council of Europe, 1996). Mature students are part of this trend rather than exceptions to it.

The reasons why such class differences persist can be understood only in the context of what happens at all other levels within the education system, and in terms of the socio-economic conditions of different classes in Irish society as a whole. In terms of academic attainment, what is clear is that there are significant social class differences in educational attainment at both primary and second level. Although there are no national examinations at primary level, surveys of reading literacy indicate that literacy difficulties at primary level are far more concentrated among some social groups than others. In a longitudinal study of sixth-class primary school pupils in inner-city schools, Archer and O'Flaherty (1986) found that twenty-five per cent of the pupils were judged by teachers as being unlikely to be able to cope with the reading demands of post-primary schooling. This is almost twice the national average for reading difficulty, which has been estimated to be between 12.5% and sixteen per cent (Morgan and Martin, 1994).

Research on public examinations at second level gives even clearer indications of the social class differences in educational attainment. Analysis of school-leaver surveys shows that, while over ninety per cent of students from upper socio-economic groups reach the Leaving Certificate level, only a little over half (fifty-three per cent) of the children of unskilled backgrounds reach this stage. Of those who stay on to complete the Leaving Certificate, moreover, just twenty-nine per cent and twenty-eight per cent respectively of the unskilled and semi-skilled attain at least two grade Cs in higher-level papers, while between sixty-two per cent and eighty per cent of the four higher socio-economic groups attain these grades (Technical Working Group, 1995).

Social and Educational Barriers to Entry

Pre-Application Stage

Social class differences in rates of retention and attainment help explain why participation rates among mature students in particular are social-class differentiated. When it comes to higher education entry, those mature applicants who have successfully completed the Leaving Certificate are automatically more advantaged. Proof of this is presented above, as over sixty per cent of mature student entrants through the CAO/CAS have a Leaving Certificate, while even higher proportions of part-time students have been awarded Leaving Certificates.

The Technical Working Group research on mature students' perceptions of the barriers to higher education entry and participation12 confirms the importance of the qualifications barriers. Lacking adequate qualifications for entry was regarded as a major barrier to higher education entry among those full-time students surveyed: forty-five per cent identified lack of adequate qualifications as the first major obstacle that many mature students had to overcome. When account is taken of the fact that the students surveyed were already within higher education, and were not from the lowest socio-economic groups, it is clear that the issue of qualifying for entry is even more problematic for other groups.

The fact that mature applicants from low-income working-class backgrounds have not attained school-leaving qualifications comparable with those of middle-class students is not, however, a foundational cause of inequality. Rather, this qualification differential reflects the differences in resources and opportunities available to different social groups within our society. Differential access to resources enables certain social groups to maintain their advantage in an openly competitive system such as education. Differential rates of retention (and indeed of examination performance) are therefore a symptom rather than a cause of inequality.

Application Stage

Once students have overcome the qualifications barriers - and this may take some time for those who have to return to do a Leaving Certificate or undertake an equivalent access programme - there are a number of other barriers which they have to confront. First, there is an information deficit about higher education, especially among people who live outside the established information networks of schools and colleges. The difficulty for adults of getting complete and accurate access to information about higher education was raised in the study undertaken with individual mature students. While the Department of Education's Information Booklet for Mature Students was welcomed, it was pointed out that adults need guidance in making their choices. No national system of guidance exists for adults at present. This is especially problematic for working-class students and for women working at home without an income, as both groups have few means of accessing guidance and information of a generalised nature about the higher education options open to them.13

Research internationally indicates that one of the most important barriers facing adults entering higher education stems in part from the lack of information and guidance, i.e. fear of the unknown/fear of failure within the unknown (Gallagher et al., 1993). This is especially the case for adults from lower socio-economic backgrounds, among whose friends and associates there may be no tradition of, or support for, entering higher education. Lack of information, guidance, social supports and interest can be exacerbated by a lack of finance.

Research conducted by the Technical Working Group on mature students confirms these findings, as the fear of returning to higher education was identified as a barrier in and of itself among a number of the students surveyed. These fears and anxieties were complicated by anticipatory worries about money and by concerns that the application and selection processes were not entirely clear or fair in all cases.

Participation Stage

Once students enter college the nature of their problems changes. The most important single source of difficulty reported by full-time mature students in the Technical Working Group study was lack of adequate finance: forty per cent identified this as their major problem. Other sources of anxiety which were identified included feeling alienated within the institution, juggling time around different commitments, and exam pressures.

When asked if they had enough time for study, fifty-five per cent said they had, but forty-five per cent had not. The principal reason people did not have enough study time was because of family and/or work commitments. Forty-five percent of those who reported having difficulties cited this as their biggest problem, while twenty-six per cent said the work load was too heavy; a further seventeen per cent reported the loss of time spent travelling as a problem. Time pressures were a special problem for women with dependants, for whom the juggling of different commitments was a significant source of stress. The fact that female mature students have particular difficulties in participating in higher education has been noted in research on a wide range of countries (Edwards, 1990; Cochrane, 1991; Council of Europe, 1996).

Financial Barriers to Equality of Access and Participation

As noted above, financial barriers are regarded as the single most important obstacle to equality of participation in higher education by mature students.

Financial barriers operate at both distal (or indirect and less immediately obvious) and proximal (or more obvious and immediate) levels. At the distal level, it is self-evident that students from low-income backgrounds have relatively low disposable incomes. Lack of access to a reasonable and secure income (in a society which prizes wealth and security) can have a profound influence on people's self image, and their expectations, both of themselves and of education; the impact is generally negative. People learn, through a whole array of social processes, that they occupy a subordinate position in society and this impacts negatively on self-image and expectations. In addition, subjective aspirations are strongly conditioned by the objective (financially permissible) opportunities available (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977). People lower their educational sights, not because they lack ability, interest or motivation but because they know that the higher education option is financially inaccessible. Finally, access to the social and cultural artefacts and experiences which build confidence and supplement learning - such as travel, extracurricular involvements, holidays and cultural events - is generally costly in our society. The inevitable outcome, therefore, is income-related access to valued educational and cultural resources and the lowering/raising of expectations, self-image, and ambitions accordingly.

Additionally, there is evidence from both at home and abroad that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds often lack ambitions and expectations for higher education arising from their sense of being strangers and outsiders in cultural institutions such as education (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977; O'Neill, 1992). Recent Irish research suggests that both young people and adults in working-class communities often perceive higher education, especially universities, as belonging to others, but not to themselves. This sense of being an outsider and not 'owning' higher education is not simply a function of education-related experiences, it is also the by-product of more general social-class-related exclusions from the social and cultural life of society (Lynch and O'Riordan, 1996).

At the proximal level, those who own and control superior financial resources exercise a freedom of choice within education which is not open to others. Superior income allows students to have access to valuable educational resources such as books, computers, travel, special interest courses, and, when necessary, extra tuition. This both improves performance and raises expectations. Not only are higher-income households better positioned to pay for the direct costs involved in 'outcompeting others' in education, they are also in a better position to manage the indirect costs. The opportunity cost of returning to education impacts differentially across households, with those on lowest incomes bearing the greatest burden. In the absence of a comprehensive grants system for mature students, it is self evident, therefore, that those who lack the resources to maintain themselves in college cannot attend. Adults with dependants and without any independent income (and these are mostly women) are especially disadvantaged in this situation.

Access, Participation and Gender Equality: Specific Barriers for Women 14


The representation of women among mature students in Ireland is noticeably lower than that of men. This is particularly the case among part-time students. While this pattern holds internationally, the gender differential in Ireland is greater than in many European countries. Although the reasons for this are many and varied, there is no doubt that the lower participation of women in the paid labour force is a contributory factor (OECD, 1987). Women who are financially dependent lack independent means to avail of higher education.

The Technical Working Group study of mature students found that this dependency took class-specific forms. Working-class women who were in low-income or welfare-dependent households often simply lacked the means to enter higher education. Even if they were to have their fees paid, the direct costs of participation in higher education (books, travel, etc.) were deemed too high relative to disposable income. The indirect costs, in terms of time and childcare, and the opportunity costs, in terms of lost opportunity for casual work, were also deemed too high.

A separate problem identified by married women of all classes, but especially by better-off middle-class and working-class women, related to their direct dependency on their spouses. At present, eligibility for a mature student grant is determined by the level of spouse's earnings. There was a strong feeling among married women of all classes that this was unjust as it meant that a husband could, and did, veto the woman's return to higher education. It was recognised that this could also happen to men who were dependent on spouses, although this is a far rarer occurrence.

Childcare and the Care of Other Dependants

There are approximately six hundred thousand women in Ireland who are defined in the Labour Force Survey as working at home (the comparable figure for men is ten thousand) (Central Statistics Office, 1996). Many of these women care for children or other dependants. The absence of adequate support services for carers means that many such women would not be in a position to enter higher education if the opportunity were to arise. The cost of providing alternative care is often prohibitive relative to disposable income, and was identified as such by the women in the Technical Working Group survey. Knowing that there is not an adequate support system of childcare, in particular, has been found to be a barrier to higher education entry for women in other countries as well (OECD, 1987; Council of Europe, 1996).

Conflict over Time

While almost half of the mature students surveyed by the Technical Working Group stated that they did not have enough time for study, time problems were particularly acute for women with care commitments. These women felt under considerable pressure in trying to balance their caring and other domestic commitments with study. While men and women experience similar time conflicts, such as the conflict between work and/or travel and study, the care pressures were felt most keenly by women.

Access to Transport

Difficulty with transport was another issue which was raised in the Technical Working Group survey by women especially. It was especially problematic for women in rural areas, many of whom lacked any affordable or accessible transport. While the lack of public transport affected both women and men, a number of women pointed out that if there was one car in the household, it generally belonged to the husband, as he was the principal earner. Lack of access to transport reflected women's dependent status, and meant that they could not travel to college even if the opportunity arose.

It is clear therefore that while both women and men from low income backgrounds experience a range of shared difficulties in entering and successfully participating in higher education as mature students, women are also likely to face additional barriers. These gender-specific barriers take different forms depending on class background, regional location and age.

Inequality in Education as a Relational Phenomenon

Much of the discussion on educational inequality tends to focus on what are defined as 'the problems' of the so-called 'disadvantaged'. There has been a tendency in educational research to explain social class differences in education by pathologising working-class culture and lifestyle.15 A cultural-deficit model of educational inequality has been normalised in much educational thinking. This model implies that the reason low-income working-class groups (school leavers and adults) are not well represented in higher education is because they have socially and culturally problematic backgrounds. In a very real sense, the cause of class inequality is located in the victim of that inequality.

This is both a damaging and an inaccurate representation of social reality, one which pathologises and stereotypes whole social groups, while depressing expectations among educators, and among the groups themselves when they are exposed to such images. It misrepresents, moreover, the nature of social causality, as it fails to take on board the fact that disadvantage can only be understood in the context of advantage. What creates inequality of access and participation in education is not the financial, educational, and social and cultural experiences of any particular group in and of itself. What creates the disadvantage is the fact that upper socio-economic groups have superior access to resources, incomes, wealth and power which enables them to avail of the opportunities presented in education in a relatively more successful manner than other groups. This holds true for older students as much as for school leavers. In a market situation in which educational success is defined in relative terms, those with superior access to valued resources and culture are inevitably positioned to be the major beneficiaries of educational investment.

Class control does not, moreover, only occur in the financial spheres; it also occurs in the cultural arena. Upper socio-economic groups are the definers and arbitrators of what is culturally valuable. They can and do define certain cultural practices and values as being 'inferior' and unworthy of recognition, research and study (Bourdieu, 1989). Given the gendered nature of control in society, it is not only class-specific cultures which are defined as inferior; values and practices which are defined as feminine are also subordinated.

What has happened, therefore, is that relational inequalities have become legitimated through a host of social practices, including wage, wealth and welfare bargaining, such as that which takes place every few years in the 'Programmes for Government'. National agreements often copperfasten and reinforce structural inequalities rather than challenging them in any serious way. Change is permitted only on the fringes of inequalities. The core differentials of power, wealth and income are rarely challenged.

As the superordinate-subordinate relations are built into the structures of institutions and systems, they become normalised and habituated. The relational character of inequality becomes invisible as inequality is experienced and presented as inevitable. Part of the difficulty in addressing the barriers faced by disadvantaged (including female) mature students, therefore, is the widespread cultural acceptance of the inequalities experienced by them. That cultural acceptance is learned both through the habitual practice and experience of inequality, and through the formal articulation of inegalitarian ideologies in institutions such as the media.

Promoting Equality of Access and Participation for Mature Students: Policy Issues

Reserving Places for Disadvantaged Mature Students

In 1993/94, mature students constituted only 5.4% of all entrants (CAO/CAS plus other entrants) to higher education. Those from the four lowest socio-economic groups were as poorly represented among mature entrants as among school-leaver entrants. In addition, the mature entrants were heavily concentrated in the arts, humanities, and business/commerce fields. As the rate of representation of mature students in higher education in the Republic of Ireland is significantly lower than in other countries, and is also much lower than in Northern Ireland, there is clearly a need to redress the balance.

While it is recognised that there are great pressures on higher education places from school leavers, and that there is a clear need in the interests of social justice to reserve places in higher education for the socially and economically disadvantaged among these, this need not preclude the development of a more proactive policy in relation to disadvantaged mature students as well. As noted above, moreover, most mature students are quite young: fifty-two per cent are under thirty years of age and seventy per cent are under thirty-five years. The age cohort from which mature students are currently drawn, then, is not very many years older than the school-leaver cohort.

Reserving places for mature students is an issue principally in full-time day programmes. While a small number of colleges have a quota of places for mature students, the data available indicates that the quota rarely exceeds ten per cent except where evening programmes are on offer. As the latter are generally designed for mature students, the question of reserving places does not arise. If extra places are to be targeted for mature students, moreover, they should apply in all fields of study within the colleges. To date, mature students have been concentrated in a narrow range of fields, mostly in the arts, humanities, social science and business areas: there is a need to provide openings across all disciplines.

If there is to be any change in the participation rate of mature students, colleges need to set targets. Some system for monitoring and reporting on progress should also be put in place.

Pre-Access Courses: Enabling Adults to Qualify for Entry

One of the points raised repeatedly throughout the literature is that equality of access to higher education for mature students cannot be successfully promoted if policies to broaden access are brought to bear only, or even mainly, at the point of entry to higher education (see Journal of Access Studies especially). Many disadvantaged mature students have a number of barriers to overcome before they even reach the point of eligibility to apply for higher education. Socially and economically disadvantaged people who wish to enter higher education have many barriers to surmount in order to reach a stage - educationally, psychologically, and economically - where they have the qualifications, resources and confidence to apply for entry.

The first step in this process for those students without prior qualifications is generally a return to learning in their own community. A precondition for improving the participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education therefore is the development of well-funded and resourced community, adult and further education. Without this, many disadvantaged people will not even reach the stage where they can qualify for entry to an access course or a Leaving Certificate programme.

Access, Foundation and Preparatory Courses

In addition to 'preparatory' community-based courses, there is also a need for more access and/or foundation courses for adults. While there is some access provision in the Republic of Ireland at present, research shows that it is very uneven and has developed on an ad hoc rather than a planned basis16 (Lynch and O'Riordan, 1996).

The development of systems for accrediting prior learning, and the establishment of a relationship between these systems, new access/foundation programmes, and traditional qualifications (such as the Leaving Certificate) should also be integral to any future access provision for adults.

Even for mature students who may have the required points for entry to a given course, there is need for a preparatory course prior to commencing full-time study. Ideally all mature students entering higher education should be given a preparatory course on study skills, essay-writing, project-writing and research skills, note-taking, library research, examination systems, time management and so on. Mature students need continued support throughout their first year as well. This is especially true for students who may be entering higher education through non-traditional routes. There is evidence from experience in Scotland (University of Dundee) that this type of programme is effective not only for non-traditional entrants but that it also reduces the failure rate among standard entrants (Lynch and O'Riordan, 1996).

Financial Supports for Mature Students

Research conducted by the Technical Working Group (1995) shows that financial barriers are a major obstacle for many aspiring mature students. The lack of an adequate system of maintenance supports for low-income mature students means that while they may have a formal right to higher education, they have no substantive right.

The problems of working-class mature students can be even more acute than those of disadvantaged school leavers, in terms of their ability to depend on their families of origin for support. This was an issue raised at interview with mature students in the Technical Working Group survey. Although there is evidence that all students from lower socio-economic groups are far less likely to be able to avail of family financial support than those from upper socio-economic groups, this can be even more true of mature students, as many are family providers themselves (Redpath and Robus, 1989). This needs to be taken into account in any form of grant provision or financial support system.

Addressing the Fundamental Economic Inequalities Which Underpin Disadvantage

Although increased grant aid would greatly assist low-income mature students in the short term, it would not resolve the underlying causes of disadvantage. As long as there are huge income and wealth differentials in our society - and the Household Budget Survey of 1987 indicated that the depth and distribution of poverty increased between 1973 and 1987 (National Anti-Poverty Strategy, 1995) - then it will not be possible for socially and economically disadvantaged adults to avail of higher education on equal terms with more advantaged groups. Unless the structural economic inequalities in the society are systematically addressed, the problem of disadvantage will be passed on to each succeeding generation. While the question of income and wealth differentials is not strictly speaking an educational concern, it is a simple fact that it has a direct bearing on educational outcomes. If there is a serious intention to eliminate (as opposed to manage) social and economic inequalities - and education clearly has a key role to play in this process - then our economic policies must not be such that they offset any positive effects of educational initiatives designed to overcome inequalities. Such policies also need to be gender proofed to take account of the very particular wealth and income differentials which exist between men and women.

Addressing the Dependent Status of Married Women

Married women's dependent status, both in terms of welfare and taxation, has been identified as a major source of inequality between women and men by the Second Commission on the Status of Women (1993). This dependent status has serious implications for married women students in terms of their entitlements to grant aid. In view of this, the necessary changes in welfare, taxation and other social insurance systems recommended by the Commission should be implemented to allow women to have independent rights and entitlements. Without these, women are effectively beholden to their spouses if they want to return to higher education.

Selection Procedures: Flexibility and Openness

At present, entry requirements for mature students across the colleges are far from clear and there is no systematic procedure for explaining to unsuccessful candidates across the colleges why they were not successful. This is something which needs to be rectified as there is considerable confusion and disquiet among applicants about the criteria that are utilised in selection. In the course of our research we held meetings and discussions with over fifty mature students in three different colleges, and with twenty unsuccessful candidates. There was a widespread belief expressed that colleges ultimately relied on Leaving Certificate results to select mature students. The fact that so many mature students who attend higher education do have a Leaving Certificate and/or a post-Leaving-Certificate qualification lends credence to this view.

While it is inevitable that flexibility in the entry requirements and procedures for mature students would mean that application procedures would be more complex than those which obtain for school leavers, complexity does not preclude clarity and openness. If the colleges are to be open to second chance students, and in particular to students who do not have conventional academic backgrounds, then it is essential that they make their criteria for selection clear to such students.

There needs, furthermore, to be consistency across departments and faculties. A persistent cause of disquiet among mature students generally is that there does not appear to be any centralised college policy in relation to mature student entry. Individual departments and faculties appear to have considerable autonomy in this respect, and the reasons for the difference across departments within a given college are often far from clear. This issue was raised at interview in the Technical Working Group research, and is regarded as a problem to be addressed in the UK as well (Gallagher et al., 1993).

Alternative Entry Routes

While there are a number of alternative entry routes to higher education in the Republic of Ireland (e.g. VTOS, Returning to Learning17 and foundation courses 18), not all have been developed on a national basis, and many are neither widely publicised nor clearly understood. While recognising that there is work in progress in this area, it is essential that any alternative entry procedures which are developed are tied to some system of equivalencies, both with the Leaving Certificate and one another.

A mature student should be able to know where she/he stands in terms of meeting the criteria for entry to a given course. Weightings or credits must therefore be given to various tests, interviews, portfolios, non-accredited but relevant prior learning, and all other mechanisms used for selection at entry. A points system could be introduced and each course could outline the weighting given to different selection criteria within this.

Staff Development and Training

Academic and administrative staff who liaise with mature students need to be fully briefed on the needs of such students. There is no doubt that the education of older adults is not the same as that of school-leavers and staff development programmes need to take account of this. The role of non-academic staff in answering queries, supplying information and administering admissions should be recognised as crucial, and training provided when necessary. The central importance of such staff development has also been noted in UK research (Gallagher et al., 1993).


One of the barriers to equality of access is lack of information. While there is a general information booklet available for mature students, ideally every college should have its own information booklet and/or video for mature students, which would include practical information covering all the relevant issues for students, (e.g. precise information on selection criteria, times of classes, library hours, crèche facilities, restaurant facilities, and so on). This would enable mature students to make informed judgements regarding institution and course choices, and to make necessary plans and arrangements well in advance.

Appropriate Course Structures: Pedagogical Style and Assessment

Colleges must not assume that the policies and practices which work with school-leavers are also appropriate for mature students. More flexibility in both the mode of delivery of education, and in modes of assessment, are essential if colleges are to facilitate disadvantaged mature students. Modularised courses, with the option of taking both daytime and evening courses at degree, certificate, or diploma level etc. over an extended period of time are essential if mature students are to be facilitated (Council of Europe, 1996).

A move away from a heavy reliance on written terminal examinations (on which there is usually no feedback except for a grade or mark), to course work and project work with feedback as part of the assessment, would not only better suit mature students, but might also be of great educational benefit to all students.

Finally, there is a need to set up systems for communicating with adult students which respect their experience and knowledge. Mature students expect to be treated as adults and to have their views on curricula, modes of assessment, teaching etc., respected (Weil, 1986; Edwards, 1990). Developing systems to allow for two-way communication between teachers and students seems essential for all students, but especially for mature students.

Support Services for Mature Students

The importance of support services for disadvantaged mature students in higher education is emphasised throughout the research literature. Their need for career counselling and guidance has been particularly strongly emphasised.

It would seem desirable therefore for colleges to establish a properly-resourced support office for all types of non-traditional entrants. This could be a place where students with equality concerns could meet, as well as a place for information and guidance. Without targeted resources, the needs of disadvantaged students will not be met.

While crèche facilities and childcare supports are essential for all students, they are especially important for mature socially and economically disadvantaged students who are women. Mature students are more likely to have children and those who are disadvantaged will not be in a position to afford private childcare. Without some kind of childcare support, higher education is not a real option for low income women or men with dependants (Council of Europe, 1996).

Recording Students' Status

One of the major barriers faced when conducting the research on mature students was actually identifying them in the colleges after they had completed their first year. Colleges had considerable difficulty identifying mature students (and indeed other special category students such as disabled students). Given this problem, it seems desirable that there would be a standard form introduced across all colleges in higher education to collect data on students. Students who enter as mature students should be easily identifiable in college records at any given time in their educational career.

Tracking Student Performance

Tracking students' progress within higher education is not standard practice in Ireland. This can disadvantage mature students (and other non-traditional entrants) in two ways. Firstly, the stereotypical and frequently negative assertions which tend to be made about them (especially about their academic capabilities) cannot be contradicted owing to lack of evidence. Secondly, where such students are having difficulties (although there is no evidence to suggest that mature students perform any differently to school-leaver entrants) there is no procedure for identifying the nature and scope of their problems and delivering assistance. The need to have accurate data on the entry and performance of higher education students is clearly important, not only for mature students but for all students.


Although there are many barriers facing low-income mature students entering higher education, these barriers are not insurmountable. Initiatives on the part of both the government and the colleges could alleviate a number of the problems without undue cost. The return to society, moreover, of proper investment in the higher education of mature students would be considerable, not least because they are generally less mobile (and therefore less likely to emigrate) than younger students.

To enable adults, particularly socially and economically disadvantaged adults, to benefit from higher education is to contribute not only to the economy but also to the quality of life of each individual, and to the social and cultural life of society. While the personal, social and cultural benefits of education impact back, over time, on the economy, the improved quality of life which education can offer is, in itself, a benefit to all social groups. Education can and does contribute to a fuller experience of citizenship among all members of society.

Participation in higher education is, furthermore, especially important for socially and economically disadvantaged groups, as it enables them to participate in both the economic and social life of society in a way which has hitherto been denied to them. In the process it helps demystify what is for many an alien institution. When it is critical and reflexive, moreover, higher education gives people more knowledge and control over their own lives, and over the social and cultural institutions in society. This, in itself, can be personally and socially empowering and fulfilling.

The demand for 'a second chance' in higher education from disadvantaged groups, such as working class people, people with physical impairments, or women, can therefore be justified not only on the basis that jobs (at both entry and promotional stages) increasingly require evidence of credentialised knowledge, but also on the basis that higher education improves personal quality of life and enriches the social and cultural life of society. In this context, higher education can be seen as a necessity rather than a luxury, as a right rather than a privilege.


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1: Central Applications Office/Central Admissions Services.Click to Return to Text

2: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (see Appendix One).Click to Return to Text

3: The reason the proportion of full-time mature entrants is slightly higher here than is recorded by the CAO/CAS (3.4%) is because not all mature students entered via the CAO/CAS system in 1993/94.Click to Return to Text

4: Among Open University entrants, however, women outnumbered men in 1992, albeit marginally, among first degree course entrants; two-thirds of Open University associate students, moreover, were women (DFE, 1994, Table 6).Click to Return to Text

5: See Appendix One.Click to Return to Text

6: The Technical Working Group survey of part-time students in 1993/94 found that almost ninety per cent were employed. This is not surprising, however, as there was no grant support for mature part-time students at the time of the survey.Click to Return to Text

7: The standard research procedure for classifying those who are unemployed is on the basis of their previous occupation. Given the extent and nature of long-term unemployment in our society, this gives a very misleading representation of social trends. It also prevents any systematic tracking and analysis of the unique problems of those who are long-term unemployed. Their concerns and problems are by no means synonymous with people in employment from comparable socio-economic backgrounds.Click to Return to Text

8: AONTAS is the National Association of Adult Education in the Republic of Ireland. Its role is to promote learning and education throughout life, particularly for those who are educationally or economically disadvantaged. It was established in 1969 and receives core funding from the Department of Education.Click to Return to Text

9: VTOS was established in 1989 in order to facilitate long-term unemployed people in making the transition to stable employment or further education and training. It provides full-time courses of one or two years duration. Participants continue to receive social/community welfare benefits.Click to Return to Text

10: This is a scheme whereby students who have been in receipt of social welfare benefit may retain their benefit whilst undertaking full-time third-level courses and receiving higher education grants. It is available primarily to people who are long-term unemployed but also to certain lone parents and disabled persons.Click to Return to Text

11: Since the Technical Working Group study was carried out in 1993/94, tax relief on fees (at the lower standard rate of tax) has been made available for approved undergraduate part-time courses. Students who have already been conferred with a certificate, diploma, or degree (involving a course of two years or more duration) are not, however, entitled to this tax relief.Click to Return to Text

12: The data presented here is based on a survey of full-time mature students conducted by the Technical Working Group for the Steering Committee on the Future of Higher Education. There were 370 students surveyed of whom fifty-two per cent responded. Group interviews were also undertaken with mature students in three different colleges; in all, fifty people attended these. A further twenty interviews with unsuccessful mature applicants were also undertaken.Click to Return to Text

13: It has been something of a surprise to find, for example, that the information leaflet on tax relief for part-time students was not available from The Department of Education, but only from the Revenue Commissioners.Click to Return to Text

14: The data on gender issues emerged from the survey of individual mature students reported above. Many of the gender-specific issues were raised in the group interviews in the different colleges.Click to Return to Text

15: Indeed gender differences and inequalities are often attributed to some kind of deficit on women's part in particular. In certain research literature (for example that which focuses on women's ambitions and aspirations) it is implicitly assumed that women are the problem rather than the institutions and structures which ensure their subordination in the first place.Click to Return to Text

16: A variety of access programmes/courses have been developed elsewhere (e.g. the Scottish Wider Access Programme). For further details on these and other initiatives, see Lynch & O'Riordan's background report, A Review of Selected Access Programmes in Ireland, Scotland, England, New Zealand and Australia (in Lynch and O'Riordan, 1996).Click to Return to Text

17: The 'Returning to Learning' course is an access course developed by University College Dublin. See Martin Walters' paper in this publication.Click to Return to Text

18: Waterford Regional Technical College, for example, runs a foundation certificate course to facilitate access to higher education for disadvantaged mature students.Click to Return to Text