Know your tribe: mature students

A woman celebrates graduation

We often talk about Gen Z students here at Student Beans – but there are currently around 250,000 mature students enrolled in UK degree courses. It’s time to meet them.

What age range do mature students fall into? 

A mature student is anyone who starts studying for an undergraduate degree aged 21 or older, or a postgraduate degree aged 25 or over – and there is no upper limit. Access routes to this cohort are really important – while many people choose not to go to university, there are others for whom it isn’t an option right away. 

How many mature students are there? 

In the 2019/20 academic year, there were 253,875 mature students at UK universities – and the number is on the rise. In May 2021, UCAS data showed that the number of applications from mature students grew by 24% year-on-year – with the total number of applicants falling just short of 100,000. To give you an idea of scale, this figure doesn’t include mature students already midway through university.

Mature students and younger students – the main differences 

At the most basic level, mature students are motivated to attend university for the same reasons as their younger counterparts – the difference, of course, is that they’re coming to university later in life. The reasons for not attending university straight out of school vary from person to person – this cohort includes those who chose a non-university-led career path, those who did not get the grades to attend university when they left school, those who could not financially afford it, or those who had other responsibilities. 

According to the Office for Students, mature students are more likely to have complex needs than younger students – such as disabilities, family and caring responsibilities – and mature students are more likely to originate from disadvantaged areas. In addition, these students are more likely to live at home full-time and commute to university. 

It’s important not to generalise this cohort – mature students represent a huge range of individuals from all walks of life, it’s likely they’ve had experiences and acquired skills that set them apart from younger cohorts, making them valuable additions to many degree programs. 

The COVID effect – mature students in healthcare

Since COVID-19 first reached pandemic levels back in 2020, global public health has become a huge topic – and through increased media coverage and candid social media posts, we all got a unique insight into the day-to-day lives of healthcare professionals. 

This has, in turn, inspired a sharp increase in applicants to study nursing in the UK – and in particular, the number of mature students applying for undergraduate nursing rose by 40.1% compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

Mature students are, of course, drawn to a huge range of degrees, but this uptick in nursing shows how influential major events can be in inspiring career changes among older adults. 

What challenges do mature students face?

Many mature students enter university with pre-existing commitments. They might have families, jobs and mortgages, all of which can compound the intensity of further education. The Office For Students found that mature students are more likely than younger students to discontinue their studies – and they are less likely to achieve a First or 2.1. 

A lot of responsibility for improving access to education lies with the universities themselves – as workplaces across the country evolve to be more flexible and remote-first, so too must universities if they want their programs to be accessible to all. But organisations and brands with a vested interest in student wellbeing and lifestyle can also play a role. 

On a financial level, remember that mature students may have higher costs when it comes to transport and accommodation – as well as costs unique to their age group, such as childcare. If you do operate in any of these sectors, consider how you can support mature demographics with student discounts. 

Overall picture

Mature students are a largely underrepresented group in student-focused literature and reports – this needs to change. As student-facing organisations, we need to support them in pursuing higher education – and give them the tools to thrive once they arrive at university. 

Want to see the full picture of student life in the UK? Download our guide – the UK student market in numbers. 

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