Published on Campus Review January 23, 2012, by Susan Woodward
The outgoing chief executive of Universities Australia is appealing for a national policy that would help boost enrolments of mature-age students. Dr Glenn Withers says a participation target should be implemented for 35 to 65 year olds in much the same way it has been for 25 to 34 year olds in the Bradley review.
“The need for increased enrolments at the mature-age level hasn’t been fully factored into governments’ plans and incentive systems,” Withers told Campus Review.
He said the failure was indicative of wider systemic problems, due in part to the overlapping responsibilities of state and federal governments. “There are a lot of potential conflicts here that for all the goodwill shown in setting ambitious targets for increased participation, increased funding and support, haven’t been pulled together adequately,” he said.
Mature-age students were falling into the gap, with no one taking responsibility for a cohort that could be key to Australia’s apparent looming productivity crisis. Withers said research and analysis were desperately needed to uncover how mature-age students – and possibly other forgotten cohorts – were fairing, and if they required incentives to seek education.
“What you’ve got is governments running around setting targets that sound reasonable at the time without knowing what they add up to,” he said. “You’re putting a lot of investment into things that won’t emerge for many years, and you want to know those investments are well directed. We say we’ve got a patchwork economy; we may have a patchwork tertiary system, too, if we’re not careful,” he said.
The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) welcomed the idea of a national enrolment target for mature-age students. However, CAPA president Chamonix Terblanche said other factors must be considered simultaneously, especially the casualisation of the academic workforce.
“These are students that, for the most part, have returned to university after gaining diverse experiences, and often significant incomes, in their work and private life,” said Terblanche. “The expense of returning to study for these students and the uncertainty of academic employment in an increasingly casualised environment cannot be underestimated as having an impact on their student experience and on retention rates.”
Withers agreed, saying the government’s related Research Workforce Strategy had not gone far enough because it lacked funding for implementation. “[The strategy’s] not nonsense, but it’s on stilts,” he said.
He linked the value of an older cohort to a future, knowledge-based economy.
“The objective should be to ensure that overall, we are commensurate with world best practice,” he said. “For example, countries such as Canada, Israel, Finland and Korea currently have significantly superior achievement of higher education qualifications across the whole 25- to 64-year-old population. We will need this, too, as our mining benefit diminishes. So we should be prepared, by taking the boom proceeds and investing in our people.”
Terblanche said data in an upcoming CAPA report would reveal that higher degree by research (HDR) enrolments amongst mature-age students were rising.
“Our findings have confirmed that mature-age students have distinct expectations from their HDR experience and that they view themselves as a distinct cohort with needs specific to their age group and level of experience,” she said. “The report will highlight the concerns of mature-age students, which include being undervalued, underfunded, and excluded from student life.”
With the passage of the Student Services and Amenities Bill late last year, she called on universities to consult with their postgraduate associations on how best to address the students’ needs.