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Mature students: an examination of DIT’s policy and practice

Author - Dáire Mag Cuill

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The Union of Students in Ireland

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has taken a strong campaigning position on improving access to third-level for under-represented groups, including mature students, and has recently published a document on equality of access (USI, 2002). The document was launched by Jacqui O'Riordan, director of the Higher Education Equality Unit (HEEU). Of particular relevance to mature students are the recommendations that:

  • The Government should design and implement measures to meet mature-student demand and ensure flexible, innovative responses to their needs.
  • Outreach and guidance services be established in order to encourage, enable and facilitate the participation of adults in education.
  • Tax relief should be extended to all courses undertaken by employees that are approved by the Department of Education and Science.

USI has also consistently called on the Government to move quickly towards achieving the target of 15% of third-level places for mature students.

The Higher Education Equality Unit

The HEEU at University College Cork was established in 1992 and is funded by the HEA (HEEU, 2003). Its role is to ‘promote equality of access and opportunity in Irish higher education institutions, for both staff and students’. It has lobbied the HEA seeking support services, financial provision, further research on attrition rates of mature students, and increased opportunities (HEEU, 1998). In June 2001 the HEEU organised a seminar on research into mature students in higher education, and some of the papers are referred to below.

The current situation in the DIT

The DIT’s stated policy in relation to mature students is similar to those of other institutions, and is set out in documentation made available to prospective students. These documents do include many positive and encouraging statements: ‘There is no upper age limit’; ‘Admissions Office staff and Faculty Staff are always available to provide information and answer queries’; ‘Mature applicants are not required to meet the normal minimum entry requirements’ (DIT, 1999). In addition, the Lifelong Learning website provides a comprehensive range of resources and links for potential and existing mature students (Kelly, 2003). Applications for each course are sent to the relevant DIT school/department to be examined by the relevant course leader(s) . It has certainly been the case in previous years that this assessment might not have been done as thoroughly as it should have been. In addition, each school designates a mature-student coordinator; however, these are lecturers with a small time allowance for the extra responsibilities, and without specific administrative backup. Historically, little direction or support was given to course leaders in terms of appropriate criteria and selection, and rarely was a decision – either to offer a place or not to offer a place – reviewed. This situation is now being addressed by the establishment of the Lifelong Learning Unit. The continuing problem seems to be with administrative issues, perhaps related to staffing levels in the central Admissions Office, which often result in the applications being sent out very tardily to the schools/departments. In 2002, applications in the Faculty of Tourism and Food arrived on the 13 May accompanied by a covering note requesting that ‘interviews be carried out in early May and decisions forwarded in late May’. This occurred despite the applications being with the CAO since 1 February. A similar timescale was agreed for 2003, but again the applications did not arrive in time to meet the first deadline and interviews were held in early June despite a target date of 6-9 May.

About 200 full-time mature students start in the DIT in any given year: 256 in the year 2000, 201 in 2001, and in 2002 the figure dropped to 165. According to the CAO, the DIT had 3,297 net acceptances in 2002 (CAO, 2002). This 165 represents just 5%, lower than the national average of 6% already quoted from the same report –already far lower than the OECD average of 20% and even the agreed target of 15%. In fact, the DIT percentage of mature entrants had in 2000 and 2001 been ahead of the national average and dipped below it in 2002. This position is shown in Figure 1.

Considering that the DIT is a major provider of third-level education in the state, with 9% of all CAO acceptances (CAO, 2002) this drop has also adversely affected the national figure. If the DIT had simply held its 2000 figure through to 2002, the overall national percentage would be 6.2% instead of 6.0%. If the DIT had grown at the same rate as other third-level institutions, the national percentage would be 6.6%.


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