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

Author - Dáire Mag Cuill


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Most research into mature students focuses on students who have succeeded in entering the system, and often deals with their subsequent success or lack of success. On the other hand, it has become quite common in business research to look closely not only at customers, but at enquiries from people who did not become customers. In a similar vein Mark Murphy and Tom Inglis (2000) have looked at unsuccessful applicants to Ireland’s largest university – University College Dublin. They found that the application process itself was a barrier, as was the lack of a standardised procedure for assessing applications and the absence of recognised access routes. These latter two are issues which have now been widely recognised, but the first is also a cause for concern.

When an institute sets out to facilitate mature students from under-represented socio-economic groups it has to deal with two sets of problems simultaneously. In examples where this has been undertaken and studied the combination of factors identified – situational, institutional and dispositional – can be wide reaching (Bamber and Tett, 1999). Again the clearest conclusion is that more and different support is necessary to enable these non-traditional students to participate and to achieve academic success. As the DIT is traditionally a provider of vocational education, with a mix of certificate, diploma and degree courses, all of these articles would have relevance for the DIT’s emerging lifelong learning strategy.

Questions which should be asked

How should we define a ‘mature’ student? Is being over a certain age an adequate definition? Is 23 old enough?
If there are arbitrary criteria being applied to the treatment of mature/adult learners then the cut-off age is certainly one. The age defined by the HEA for application to colleges in the Republic of Ireland is 23 (HEA, 2003), whereas in the UK it is 21 (UCAS, 2003). In the US, for research purposes an ‘adult learner’ is usually someone aged 25 or older (College Board, 2002), but in fact the age of the applicant is not used in the application process and there is no special application process for mature applicants. When one considers that students typically leave school and enter college at an earlier age in Ireland than in the UK, the average age at entry in Ireland is 18½ – only in the Philippines is it lower (OECD, 2000), this means that there is a significantly longer period between leaving school and being eligible for consideration as a mature student – even between the two parts of Ireland. As pointed out by the Points Commission, this makes the option of working for a few years and returning to education far less attractive.

Could the current system be used as a fallback by already well represented groups?
This has to be a concern. The Points Commission sees the potential of mature entry being seen as a ‘soft option’ as an argument against lowering the age threshold to 21 (Points Commission, 1999, p. 107). It would be invidious if a move to promote equity had the opposite effect, and increased representation from over-represented sectors of society.

Does the DIT currently receive enough viable mature applications? If not what can be done to improve the applications?
Although the number of mature entrants during the period 2000–2002 has been falling, the number of applicants has actually been rising. In 2000 there were 650 applicants who indicated that they were mature on their application forms. In 2001 this figure was 751, and in 2002 it was 970 <--Personal communications from the DIT Admissions Office, May - July 2003; Dublin.-->. In fact this does not represent the total of applicants who actually were eligible to be classified as mature, as some over-23 year-olds apply in the ordinary way. Even allowing for students who do not avail of the ‘mature route’, but who are allocated places anyway, this represents conversion rates of applicants to entrants of 39%, 27% and 17% respectively at the very best. Even though the overall increase in applications means that a lower proportion needs to be viable and that a conversion rate of about 50% would meet the 2005 target, the DIT is actually disimproving, and is barely meeting a third of the target, as can be seen from Figure 2.

Questions must be asked as to why this dramatic falloff is happening. Are the applicants in 2002 really less suitable, or are offers not been taken up? This situation contrasts with the overall CAO picture. In 2000 there were a total of 33,077 CAO applicants who indicated some preference for a DIT course – somewhere between preference 1 and 10 on either the degree or certificate/diploma list. These are referred to by the CAO as ‘Total Mentions’. In 2001 this figure was 30,816, and in 2002 it had fallen 28,156. The conversion rates for these have been 10%, 11% and 12% respectively, as there are currently around 3,300 entrants a year.

So, ironically, the DIT is increasing its standard CAO acceptances while at the same time reducing its mature acceptances. In fact the conversion rates are tending towards each other. However, as the DIT has agreed to the target of 15% of all entrants being classified as mature by 2005, this means that about 500 mature entrants have to be found somewhere. It is unlikely that they can come from this relatively small number of applications unless the conversion rate is much improved – to about 50%. The overall number of applicants must also be increased.

Further research is needed to study why the DIT is performing as it is, and to find examples of best practice to improve this.

 


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