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

Author - Dáire Mag Cuill

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The Lifelong Learning Unit

Dr Diana Kelly was the first head of DIT’s Lifelong Learning Unit within the Directorate of Academic Affairs, with responsibility for policy regarding mature students. Before coming to the DIT she spent 20 years working in the California Community College system, where latterly she was director of continuing education. In Dr Kelly’s opinion, the primary equity problem facing mature students in the DIT is that most of them must pay tuition fees. At the moment there are no tuition fees payable by EU citizens pursuing a first full-time undergraduate course in the south of Ireland, but fees are still payable for part-time courses. Mature students in the DIT are most often part-time due to family, work or other commitments. It would be better to have ‘free fees’ for all students, but worldwide governments are pulling back from this. In the California Community College system, generally all students (full or part-time, mature or school leaver) pay $11 per unit studied – and even this modest fee can be waived. Most modules comprise three units, and a full-time student would generally take five modules per semester (part-time students take less). With two semesters per year the fee would amount to only $330. This fee is even less than the fees for registration, capitation and exams paid by students in Ireland’s ‘free-fees’ system. Dr Kelly feels that the California system is more equitable. She points out that modularisation of undergraduate courses would blur the distinction between part-time and full-time students, as individuals could register for more or less courses depending on their circumstances .

It might also be argued that the opportunity costs of returning to college having worked for a number of years are greater than those of going directly to college after school. However, it is not clear whether this could be considered an equity issue. A further problem is that the low number of mature students overall often means that most mature students are the only mature student in their class. Dr Kelly believes that this contributes to a feeling of alienation, and ultimately to lower retention. She feels that this alienation exacerbates the common reactions that she calls dispositional barriers: ‘It’s too late for me’, ‘I won’t be hired’, or ‘I feel uncomfortable with all the young ones’. Students also have problems settling into study habits, and in particular with mathematical subjects. According to Dr Kelly, in the California Community College system the median age of students is 29, and in her experience in the US, 50% of all higher education students are aged 25 or over. These figures are broadly confirmed by the College Board (2002), which gives a figure of 44% for students over age 25 for 1996, although it predicts a drop back to 39% by 2008 due to demographics. The OECD figures for Ireland given above compare very poorly with these.

Dr Kelly feels that there exists a further inequity problem in that there may be a serious ageism problem in relation to hiring in Ireland, which means that, for example, a 45-year-old person who hopes for a career change might be wasting their time in returning to college. This opinion is supported by research quoted in the Age & Opportunity Newsletter where it is claimed ‘a Europe-wide study of age discrimination carried out in 1993 found that recruitment practices discriminated against people from age 40 on in most countries’ (Age & Opportunity, 2000). This prejudice might be based not only on age, but also on an assumption that older applicants have more commitments, would be inclined to work less, andexpect more money than younger applicants. Such issues would generally not be considered fair criteria in recruitment. There is new legislation in the area in Ireland, the Employment Equality Act (1998), which outlaws discrimination in relation to employment on nine grounds: gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community. But its effect has not yet been seen (Department of Justice, 2002).

DIT initiatives

Due to concern about attrition rates among students, the DIT set up an internal retention project in 2000. The project team initially examined the status of the entry cohort of 1994. While the greater number would be expected to complete their chosen course within the normal length of time (3 or 4 years in most cases), this 6 year period allowed for longer courses and repeated years or years out. Completion rate for full-time mature students was only 33%. The figure was just over 60% for students overall (DIT, 2000). The report went on to identify possible reasons for this, and some of these are being addressed. Unfortunately this research only deals with full-time students. This situation contrasts starkly with other reports which show much higher success rates for mature students in Ireland over much the same period, notably Healy’s 1997 study (quoted in Action Group, 2001, p. 82) which showed 87% successfully graduating. From an intake of 119 mature students in University College Cork in 1994, 80 graduated with honours degrees and 8 with pass degrees (Henchion, 2001).

The DIT has run an ‘Untapping your Potential’ programme for the last four years, dealing with study, time and life management issues. Participation is free to all mature students, and offered at a number of DIT sites. Feedback received by Dr Kelly suggests that the best aspect of the programme is the sense of community it creates.



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