Mature students: an examination of DIT’s
policy and practice
As it is not enough to facilitate entry – how do
you ensure continuation/completion? Is the non-completion rate higher
for mature students?
We have seen that there are higher non-completion rates for mature
students in the DIT, and that support is required if this gap is
to be closed. Of course this support must be appropriate, and as
identified by the Action Group on Access it must be in the ‘correct
mix’. The Points Commission identifies financial support,
and the removal of various financial anomalies, as being crucial
for mature students; but also identifies the need for support in
terms of induction into the third-level environment – both
academic and social. Progress must also include transfer between
courses and progression from certificate to diploma to degree.
Does the format of third-level education itself discriminate
against mature students – full-time vs. part-time, attitudes
of staff towards students, independence of students, compatibility
with family life/caring and social life?
The DIT is the largest single provider of part-time courses in
the Republic, with over 250 course offerings – some of which
lead to ordinary degrees. However, most DIT courses leading to honours
degrees are only available on a full-time basis. Many of the courses
offered full-time are not currently available on a part-time basis,
and those courses that are available on a part-time basis are mainly
at sub-degree level. As already mentioned this should improve with
the development of modular programmes of study. In this context
it is worth considering what Dr Don Thornhill, chairperson of the
HEA, had to say at ‘Challenges for the Millennium - The Future
Shape of Third Level’ (Thornhill,
2000):Mature and part-time students are not a homogeneous category.
They include students and learners involved in second-chance or
‘catch-up’ education as well as individuals who have
already secured third-level qualifications and who are taking further
courses either for professional reasons or for personal development.
These groups start off from different positions. They have different
requirements and face different constraints but they share one common
feature. Their needs will not be addressed efficiently by an inflexible
model of day-time teaching based on the traditional academic year.”
Commentators have identified the need to look beyond access as
in-reach (to attract full-time students) and out-reach (involving
educational partnerships with the wider community) and towards access
as flexibility – incorporating APL, open and distance learning
Is a separate entry system for mature students, and other
non-standard applicants, unfair in itself? Is there even a danger
of this? Is this unavoidable in any form of affirmative action?
Dr Kelly is clear that she does not like quotas, and the impression
sometimes caused that this involves bending over backwards to facilitate
the entry of one student who may not have the ability to complete
at the expense on one who has. She prefers the introduction of access
courses to level the playing pitch, and is currently working on
the design of such a course in a modular structure for the DIT.
As we have seen, it is possible that a quota system would be open
to challenge in the courts.
Do non-standard means of entry (i.e. other than the points
system) foster any form of bad feeling? If so, do we just have to
live with that?
Dr Kelly does not believe that this is the case in the DIT, again
because there are so few mature students at the moment, but that
there are problems in the US. The way to overcome this, she feels,
is for the criteria for admission to be fair, clear and open. Indeed
she feels that the SATs (Scholastic Assessment Tests) currently
used widely in the US are not fair in that there is evidence of
particular groups consistently performing better or worse on them.
As we have seen, the target of 15% of places at third-level to
be reserved for mature students has been widely accepted: the Points
Commission, the HEA, USI, the Access Group on Access to Third Level
Education and the White Paper on Adult Education all accept it as
a given. In addition, it has been written into the Programme for
Prosperity and Fairness, Framework IV, ‘Post-Second Level
Participation, including by Mature Students’ (Action
Group, 2001). However the fact remains that Ireland has one
of the lowest participation rates for mature students at third-level.
‘Equality of Opportunity’ for mature students is not
just about access to courses but also about retention, and completion
with attainment of life goals, which often include employment. These
might be called access, progress and success. How is the DIT performing?
In terms of access, the DIT is not performing well. Even at 200
students entering a year – a figure that was not reached in
2002 – it falls below the average for the Institute of Technology
sector in Ireland, and way short of the OECD norms and agreed official
targets. In common with other colleges the approach in uncoordinated,
and uncatalogued (Action
Group, 2001). It is clear that more needs to be done to attract
applications, to progress as many as possible of the existing applications,
and to develop a set of entry criteria to include APL/APEL. For
those students who narrowly miss these criteria, Dr Kelly’s
new access course (see above)<--link--> might provide a bridge.
It must also be accepted that mature students do not have access
to adequate third-level guidance, and that this places them at a
further disadvantage vis-à-vis school leavers. The DIT cannot
solve this problem alone, but it can be part of the solution.
Regarding progress, the DIT’s own retention project shows
that the situation is far worse for mature students than for school
leavers – although at 60%, the overall completion rate is
also a cause for concern. There are many reasons for this, some
of which stem from the course structure in the DIT, but it is to
be hoped that the introduction of a flexible modular structure will
improve matters here. It should also have a positive effect of the
number of applications. If it also involves a change in the distinction
between full-time and part-time courses, it would bring additional
benefits. So it may well be that the DIT’s faults are both
of omission and commission, and that the format of education offered
is not appropriate. How much of this could be addressed when, or
if, the DIT moves to a modular system? However to achieve a satisfactory
level of mature-student participation requires more than a change
in course structure, laudable policy objectives, and a small group
of committed people working diligently either centrally or locally.
It will need significant resources, and the reality is that this
will only be fully realised as the number of school leavers entering
continues to decline.
The DIT policy towards mature applicants is broadly in line with
international standards. However, the practice seems to fall far
from the laudable standards contained in the policy. Worryingly
there has even been slippage – the numbers of mature entrants
is falling when it should be rising. This will have to be addressed
as a matter of urgency. In the short term the DIT will need to further
develop the criteria for the selection of mature applicants, and
this will require research to establish international best practice.
With a conversion rate of applications to entrants of only 17% in
2002, is it the case that the DIT is not getting enough viable applications,
or is the DIT not recognising the viable applications that it does
get? Effort will also have to be put into attracting mature students
and into facilitating their joining the system through pre-registration
workshops, application workshops, access courses and support; and
facilitating their successfully passing through the system. Effort
will also be needed in developing a culture among staff, particularly
among those involved in dealing with mature applications, which
is disposed towards facilitation of applicants. In particular the
administration of mature applications will have to be speeded up
and streamlined. Not only is this delay frustrating and de-motivating
for the applicants, it may mean that some accept offers for other
institutions because they are unsure if they will ever hear from
the DIT. It is hard to understand how it takes ten weeks for applications
to the CAO to be forwarded to the individual schools within the
DIT: an improvement of even a few weeks in this would be of significant
The author is very grateful to Dr Diana Kelly, formerly of DIT’s
School of Lifelong Learning, who provided much material and encouragement
for this paper as well as comments and corrections on an earlier