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Creating a Sense of Community for Mature Students at Warwick

Studying at university is exciting and challenging for all students, it is a process whereby students develop and build identities (Laming et al, 2019). However, university education should not just be the preserve of eighteen year olds leaving full-time education from sixth forms and colleges. Mature students bring a richness and diversity to the higher education community, with life experiences which allow for a greater understanding of the world around us.

This research project will look to explore how mature students develop a sense of community at the University of Warwick, what their journey was to get to university and how we may better support them whilst they are here. Only by hearing the voices of mature students will be able to develop framework to ensure that our university systems are able to provide appropriate support to enable them to succeed.

Mature student numbers have been in serious decline over the past 10 years, with a 22 per cent drop in those entering higher education (OfS, 2020). Moreover, the devastating impact of the part-time fees in 2012 has decimated mature student part time enrolment (70 per cent drop) (Fraser & Harman, 2019).

Mature students are more likely to be from diverse backgrounds, with research demonstrating that they are ‘more likely to be female, BME, to hold nontraditional qualifications and to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds than young students’ (NUS, 2012: 7). Students who are classed as mature are also more likely to drop out of their courses, and less likely to gain a ‘good’ degree classification. Furthermore, they are much more likely to have additional caring or financial responsibilities (Pearce, 2017).

The University of Warwick has declining numbers of mature students. Data demonstrates that there has been a 31% decrease in the number of full-time (FT) undergraduate mature students coming to study at Warwick between 2016/17 and 2020/21. In 2020/21 there were 260 FT undergraduate Home/UK mature student’s at Warwick, and if you exclude the two most popular programmes (MBChB Medicine and Social Studies) there were only 47 new FT undergraduate mature students enrolled at Warwick this academic year. Part-time (PT) mature student numbers at Warwick have also in declined significantly over the last two academic years.

This project will seek to employ a model of critical pedagogy, as defined by Giroux (1997) and Freire (1998), as a commitment to recognising the transformative power of education for students, but also acknowledging the aspiration of making education more equitable for all staff and students who study, and work, at higher education institutions.

It is proposed that this research project will conduct research conversations (as defined by Duckworth & Smith, 2017), as opposed to research interviews. Both of the researchers are, or have recently been, mature students, so it is an acknowledgement of ‘dialogical stories’, whereby opinions, thoughts and feelings can be shared between researchers and participants.

The aspiration of the project is conduct twenty research conversations with mature students during the spring and summer term of 2020/21. This research will seek to interview students who are over the age of 30. It is felt by the researchers that a student who is in their twenties, and living on campus, will have a very different experience to those who are older (perhaps with other external responsibilities) even though they are both classified at mature students. There will be a purposive sampling strategy and the recruitment of participants will seek to draw upon students who are on a number of programmes, including FT UG degrees, those studying PT with Centre for Lifelong Learning and those studying on the Gateway to HE programme

Damien Homer works as a Widening Participation Co-ordinator for the Arts at University of Warwick. This strategic role is to enhance collaborative approaches and facilitate joined up working between academic and professional service areas. Previous to this role was a creative teacher for thirteen years and has held education roles in Local Government and at the Civil Service. Damien has recently completed his Doctorate in the field of student voice practice and has interests in co-creation and student engagement. He is chair of the Faculty Widening Participation Forum and is a member of the Arts Heads of Department Forum, Arts Faculty Education Committee and Widening Participation Committee.