22 SES 09 D, Inclusion and Diversity in Higher Education Settings
This study explores the nature and profile of students on Mature Student Access Courses in one university. Successful completion of these access courses confers access to specific undergraduate programmes in that university. Entry to higher education in Ireland is strongly influenced by socio-economic background and age, with very high levels of participation from school-leavers from managerial and professional groups. The dominance of higher social groups in tertiary education is well evidenced in a number of studies, particularly among the school leaver cohort of students entering university. This pattern merits further study to establish if similar tendencies are observable among mature students with reference to their participation in higher education. The study of mature students on access programmes is contextualised within an analysis of national and international policy and trends in access to higher education. The study analyses the patterns and experiences of the mature student access cohort in comparison to patterns observable among mature years entrants and young adult entrants in the undergraduate population in the case study institution.
The study uses a mixed methods approach to quantify and qualify the numbers and experiences of different cohorts in the case study university. Patterns of participation among the new entrants are analysed and are used to contextualise the debate about selectivity and widening participation in Irish higher education. The quantitative data is supplemented by qualitative inputs, giving voice to the mature access students who aim to progress to university study. The research explores the mediating effects of class, age and gender in this process, examining if maturity and the possible benefits that accrue with age, offer additional strategies or advantage to older students.
This research explores the appropriateness in equity terms of a national policy of treating all mature students as one homogenous target group, notwithstanding their social background and resources. The study utilises the theoretical framework of social reproduction to explore the dynamics of access and selection in Irish higher education. Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field and capital are used to explore the dynamics of social reproduction in access to higher education among the group of adult learners who are the main focus of this research. The evidence contributes to debates on the role of higher education in reproducing advantage, and whether this process extends to mature student access to Irish universities.
The study debates the process and policy for mature students accessing higher education and examines the relative value of access courses in attracting and progressing mature students into higher education. While the mature access programmes in this study are unique to one institution, provision throughout the system is mapped and the outcomes and experiences of the mature learners should have wider implications for policy and practice of widening participation in higher education.
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