As we approach the end of 2020 it would be an understatement to say that the year has been a challenging one for University recruitment and marketing teams. However, the recruitment cycle continues to turn and attracting students for the 2021 intake, together with developing strategies and communications to target specific student groups, are now firmly at the top of the agenda.
Earlier this year, we were asked by one of our client universities to scope a collaborative insight piece on the decision-making journeys of one lesser understood student group –mature undergraduate students. With that qualitative insight project now approaching its conclusion, and with current employment conditions impacting on education decision-making for forthcoming years, this seems like a perfect time to consider the place of mature student recruitment within the wider recruitment agenda.
Current data shows that the number of mature students in Higher Education has been declining, making them a key priority for widening participation and fair access targets as well as a key opportunity to bolster undergraduate student numbers. The 22% decrease in mature students entering higher education from 2010-11 to 2018-2019 was thought, in an OFS study, to have been driven by a 52% decrease in part-time study.
Our desk research highlighted that the decision-making process can be much more difficult for mature students, as most undertaking undergraduate courses are more likely to want to study part-time, have a job and/or hold a wider range of qualifications than their younger counterparts. Deciding to do a degree can often require delaying career progression, have greater impact on finances and necessitate greater time organisation.
Despite these often more challenging circumstances, there appears to be a strong sense of purpose and drive in motivations to study in Higher Education, with many mature students more heavily invested and committed to the learning process than other undergraduate equivalents as a consequence of these challenges.
When we asked mature students about their motivations behind studying we found that many wanted to upskill and gain a qualification to help them in their career and employment prospects as well as improving the quality of life for themselves and their families.
“[I had a] conversation with my son in which he was telling me that he wants to do something and I was like well when you want to do something just go work for it and you can do it. It just made me realise, hang on, why aren’t I?”
However, the application process isn’t considered straightforward by prospective mature students who told us that they felt that universities, on the whole, didn’t provide enough help with the application process, particularly when it came to personal statements and interviews.
“I think it’s because it’s such an important thing as well. You want to make sure that you do it correctly. Well, I think there was that added stress…”
Furthermore, the opportunity to build relationships with the university, as part of the application process, was important to mature students, something which is particularly challenging to achieve in the current environment, of course, but an important factor to consider nevertheless.
As we carried out our insight project between July and September this year we were also uniquely positioned to ask mature undergraduate prospective students how the current circumstances are impacting their decision making and also ask current mature students about their transition into university life.
The full range of qualitative insight findings to help support and understand the habits, thoughts, feelings, and communication needs of mature students are now available to institutions who join us on the project. We will also be holding an online workshop event to explore the findings on Thursday 8th December. Find out more here about how to join us on the project and at the workshop.
 Office for Students (2019). Recruitment of Mature Students to Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Courses – Research. Retrieved from https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/14f84fe4-47c4-47c3-a125-559feed1f712/mature-students-and-nmah-courses-report.pdf
 Universities UK (2014). Trends in undergraduate recruitment. Retrieved from https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2014/trends-in-undergraduate-recruitment.pdf