Group of adult learners

OU-led study will focus on 'urgent' need to assess impact of outreach to adult learners in HE

The Open University (OU) is to lead a new research project to determine the best ways universities are reaching out to mature learners, particularly those in under-represented groups.

The six-month project, commissioned by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) will address a critical gap in Widening Participation policy: sector understanding of outreach aimed, not at school pupils, but at adults and looking at groups currently under-represented in higher education.

The OU, in partnership with colleagues from Birkbeck, University of London, University of Bristol and University of Leeds, represent institutions with a historic mission to serve the needs of adult learners.

“The issue of the decline in part-time HE learners has been well-documented, but the disproportionate impact of fee rises on adult learners, together with the inadequacy of Information, Advice and Guidance aimed at mature students, remain critical issues in efforts to widen access to university study,” said lead investigator Dr John Butcher.

Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: "I am delighted to appoint the Open University to lead this research. Adult learners enrich university communities, but there are still far too few of them. We urgently need to understand more about the specific challenges they face, and how best to attract and support them into higher education.

This project will support universities and colleges to find out what works best for adult learners in their contexts, ensuring that the investment they make through their access agreements is having real impact.

Under lead investigator Dr Butcher, the partners will produce a series of case studies of institutional approaches to engage adult learners. These will provide the HE sector with examples of the kind of intervention activities and curricula design that succeed with adults who require flexible support to engage with HE study.

These will include examples of: preparatory, pre-entry part-time distance learning in STEM; the use of free open educational resources with adults in poorly paid employment sectors; progression pathways for evening students; community engagement around a Foundation Year in Arts/Humanities; community links from non-formal learning through GCSE study to foundation years.

'Important commitment'

A set of guidance will also be issued to enable institutions to evaluate their outreach with adults. It is intended this will enhance the current evidence base in terms of understanding aspiration-raising with adults.

A key outcome will be the stimulus provided to universities to include credibly evaluated outreach with adults in Access Agreements. This will result in a fuller and more inclusive interpretation of widening participation in England.

Dr John Butcher said: “This is a really important commitment from OFFA, recognising the “absence”of adult learners from many policy pronouncements about widening participation.

“We look forward to working with our partners to produce a series of case studies of outreach with adult learners aimed at galvanising activity in this important area.”

The project is for six months until the end of March 2017.