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

Author - Dáire Mag Cuill


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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 (Osborne, 2003).

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.

Conclusions

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.

Recommendations

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 use.

Acknowledgement

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 draft.

 


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