Publication of the report from the UUK Social Mobility Advisory Group could not be more timely given that it was the choice of Theresa May, on her appointment as Prime Minister, to draw attention to social mobility as a priority for her government. From the perspective of lifelong learning in higher education, the report is all the more welcome for the attention that it gives to the importance for social mobility of opportunities for adult learners. As Nicola Dandridge argues cogently in her Foreword,
"We also need to move away from the perception that people only have one chance for university study at the age of 18. For many people from disadvantaged backgrounds, going to university later in life will be the only opportunity they have. Now, more than ever before, the UK needs more highly skilled graduates of all ages, and mature learners have to be part of the solution."
The report is to be commended for paying much more than lip-service to this exhortation, with careful consideration in each section of mature and part-time perspectives. When it comes to the recommendations, though, there are several points where UALL would have wanted to see more, and more sharply focussed, proposals. Three themes will serve as illustration:
- Whilst there is very welcome emphasis on the importance of improved information, advice and guidance, and recognition that this should include "a particular focus on encouraging up-skilling or reskilling of mature students and the promotion of lifelong learning" it is surprising in this context to find no reference to the complete absence of any provision for mature students in the current round of National Networks for Collaborative Outreach. The resultant closure of an OU-based network with a remit for adult returners is in absolute contradiction to the UUK thinking and surely deserves to be highlighted and addressed as a matter of urgency.
- The report gives much attention to the negative impact on future prospects of low educational attainment in pre-university learning. This gives rise to a series of recommendations around partnerships between higher education and schools. Exactly the same concerns pertain to mature learners yet similar attention is not given to addressing the serious erosion of community-based, further and adult education provision nor is there advocacy for the foundation year and other measures taken by HEIs to address this shortfall in opportunities for mature students to develop capabilities for higher education.
- There is some reference to apprenticeships and work-based learning in the report but, here again, provision that could have such an impact for mature learners does not find its way explicitly into any of the recommendations, for example, as an area for focused study and evaluation of "what works".