adult learners
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Alison Watson, Programme Leader for BA (Hons) Business at Arden University provides insight into widening education options for adult learners

There is a diffused perception amongst mature adults that higher education is for 18-year olds and not for them. Often I hear: “I never thought I was good enough to go to university, and now here I am”.

As an academic, hearing this fills me with both sadness and hope. The adult learning market is challenging and complex due to fears from adults believing that they are not good enough to gain a degree. Frankly, for a lot of potential adult students, this is not the case. After some consideration, it became evident to me that this feeling of isolation and alienation from the higher education sector should be addressed.

There have been a number of studies conducted to ascertain how to widen participation and access for all students. The UK government is encouraging smaller bite-sized courses and accelerated degrees, whereby students can learn with flexibility online, thus enabling them to continue in their employment. The government has also introduced maintenance loans helping students to fund their education and increase their social mobility within society.

2012 was declared the year of the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), whereby short courses were available online. These types of courses do have their benefits and expose adults to “taster” sessions on particular subjects. It is anticipated that those who undertake to study a MOOC will one day enrol onto a higher education course.

Higher education itself has also been through significant change over the years, in particular with relation to student funding and market entry of alternative higher education providers being made easier.

Whilst the latter may challenge conventional institutions offering traditional campus-based teaching, alternative providers offer differentiation in their courses. Take, for example, Arden University and other online higher education providers; these institutions offer adult learners alternative routes into higher education through online and blended learning, thus enabling students of all ages to obtain their degrees.

It is important to ensure that access to higher education is not for a privileged minority and that everyone has the freedom to pursue their education if he or she wishes to. Institutions are devoting more resources to the admissions and marketing functions to send a clear message to potential students, that message being that higher education is accessible, that their participation is important and that the outcome of degrees will be skills development. Allocating resources to certain segments is also a strategy being employed and reaching out to minority communities may encourage more adults to apply for university places.

The government is also focusing on alternative provisions for adult learners and have made a significant commitment to establishing 3 million apprenticeship placements by 2020. These apprenticeships will offer adults the opportunity to develop their skills vocationally and at the same time, they will work towards a qualification. For those students who have been out of education for a while, this mode of delivery works well and builds confidence through the knowledge of having support from their company and at the same time, the coaching and mentoring advice from academic staff.

It is clear that there is some work going on to draw more mature students into higher education, and at the same time maintaining the momentum to provide an established provision for the entire marketplace. As competition for this market increases, higher education institutions will surely be required to “up their game” and focus on how to capture these students and retain them.

About the author

Alison Watson is Programme Leader for BA (Hons) Business at Arden University.

She’s an expert in marketing, human resource management, international business and student recruitment. She has been operations and project manager in the retail sector for 14 years and completed an MBA via distance learning whilst working full time to become a lecturer. Alongside working for a number of higher education institutions, she specialises in bespoke learning and training packages.


Alison Watson

Programme Leader for BA (Hons) Business

Arden University

Tel: +44 (0)20 300 56070


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