Anyone caring to take a walk around the campuses of Ireland’s third level institutions would be struck by the number of what is quaintly called ‘mature students’. ‘Matures’, as they’re often referred to, are those students who are over the age of 23. In the past number of years they have been signing up for higher education programmes in droves. This year’s CAO figures, for example, showed that one-in-four of the 71,843 applicants were in that category.
The word I hear back from our academics is that matures are making a profound contribution to the learning culture on campus. They obviously have a steadying influence on our younger students, many of whom are finding their feet in the world. More than that though, the sharing of experiences between today’s Web 2.0 generation and their somewhat older counterparts who have real life savvy, is benefiting one and all.
It would appear therefore that our sought-after learning society is becoming a reality, even if not under the precise conditions we might have envisaged when documents such as the HEA’s strategy on access in third level was published.
Many of this cohort find themselves in college having lost their jobs, due to the downturn in the economy. State support in the form of the Back to Education Allowance (BTEA) and the maintenance grant were therefore vital to making full-time study a viable option. In the 2010 Budget, however, while the Minister for Finance said that ‘protecting jobs and providing opportunities for those who are unemployed to return to work and avail of education is a priority for Government’, he introduced a change that will have precisely the opposite effect.
From now on, recipients of the BTEA will no longer be entitled to claim the maintenance grant. The Department of Finance estimates that this will yield €4 million in savings in 2010 and €35 million in a full year. Many of 18,000 mature students who have applied through the CAO are likely to be effected by this, some of whom are already undertaking Access programmes. Current students may also be impacted if they have to undertake a ‘new’ course in order to progress through the National Framework of Qualifications.
Amazingly, this appears to have remained beneath the radar of popular comment. It was raised with the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Seán Haughey, during the Aontas Adult Learners’ Festival, but in general there has scarcely been a whisper. Maybe it’s time to get Joe Duffy on the case!