More older learners sign up for university amid drive to upskill during pandemic

A greater number of older applicants appear to be signing up to study at university as more people seek to improve their skills following the pandemic, according to higher education watchdog.

The Office for Students (OfS), England’s universities watchdog, has said the significant increase in demand from mature learners may reflect signs of more adults looking to upskill due to Covid-19.

Full-time undergraduate mature applicants from the UK, those who enter higher education aged 21 or over, rose by 24% to 96,390 this year, an extra 18,540 students, the analysis of Ucas figures show.

It comes after Ucas revealed in February that the number of students aged 35 or over who have applied to study nursing has risen by 39% this year.

Manchester Metropolitan University’s Birley campus  (Peter Byrne/PA)
Manchester Metropolitan University’s Birley campus (Peter Byrne/PA)

A report from the watchdog says: “There are encouraging signs that mature students may be returning in greater numbers to higher education.

“Mature applicants have risen, especially in nursing.

“The introduction of remote learning, necessitated by the pandemic, has offered more flexible provision to those with other responsibilities.”

It adds: “It is imperative that the momentum that is building for mature students is not lost after the pandemic.

“Improved choice, funding and flexibility will be essential to set mature and younger students on a truly equal footing.”

During the pandemic, long-standing providers of remote higher education have reported an increase in enrolments, the report highlights.

This month, figures shared with the PA news agency showed that the number of people signing up for Open University (OU) has surged amid the pandemic.

The distance-learning organisation said the pandemic has been the main driver of the rise as it has increased the demand for upskilling and reskilling.

On the experience of mature students, Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said: “The transition into higher education for older learners can be particularly challenging – from difficulties with getting back into studying, juggling work and family commitments, or adjusting to life on campus.

“Encouraging data suggest we may be turning the tide in the recruitment of mature students.

“This presents a golden opportunity for universities and colleges to respond creatively to mature students’ needs and enable a new generation to gain the skills they need for their future careers – particularly important as we continue our recovery from the pandemic.

On Thursday, the OfS is hosting an event on how mature students can be supported to succeed.

OfS chairman Lord Wharton said: “All students, from all backgrounds, with the ability and desire to study at university or college should be supported to access, succeed in and progress from higher education.

“If we are to achieve this goal, we need to open up and indeed significantly improve the opportunities for people to access higher education later in life.

“Following more than a decade of decline, we are at a turning point for mature student participation in higher education.

“Application and acceptance numbers are showing the first increase for some time.”

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan, said: “It is well recognised that mature students can face more barriers than most in accessing and succeeding in their post-18 education, and this Government is committed to changing that.

“Our lifetime skills guarantee will ensure that everyone, at all stages of their life, has the funding they need to access the equivalent of four years of high-quality further education, whether that’s at their local college or at a university.

“This will give everyone the chance to retrain and upskill throughout their lives and respond to this country’s ever-changing skill needs and employment patterns.”