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New study will focus on ‘urgent’ need to assess impact of outreach to adult learners in HE

Mature students on the Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities course Dan Rowley

Press release issued: 20 October 2016

The University of Bristol is to take part in a new research project to determine the best ways universities are reaching out to mature learners, particularly those in under-represented groups.

The six-month project, commissioned by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) and led by the Open University, will address a critical gap in Widening Participation policy: sector understanding of outreach aimed, not at school pupils, but at adults and looking at groups currently under-represented in higher education.

The OU, in partnership with colleagues from Bristol, Birkbeck, the University of London and Leeds University, represent institutions with a historic mission to serve the needs of adult learners.

Under Principal Investigator Dr John Butcher, the partners will produce a series of case studies of institutional approaches to engage adult learners. These will provide the HE sector with examples of the kind of intervention activities and curricula design that succeed with adults who require flexible support to engage with HE study.

These will include examples of preparatory, pre-entry part-time distance learning in STEM; the use of free open educational resources with adults in poorly paid employment sectors; progression pathways for evening students; and community links from non-formal learning through GCSE study to foundation years.

The case study offered by the University of Bristol will focus on the Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities, a preparatory year aimed at those without conventional qualifications. Each year the University also offers taster courses for the Foundation Year that are developed collaboratively with organisations including the Single Parent Action Network (SPAN), Bristol Refugee Rights and IDEAL Community Action.

Tom Sperlinger, the course director for the Foundation Year, said: "This is an exciting opportunity for us to contribute to, and learn about, good practice across the sector. Adult learners have an enormous amount to contribute to university life and this will allow us to play a part in ensuring their distinctive voices can be heard more clearly within the sector as a whole."

A set of guidance will be issued to enable institutions to evaluate their outreach with adults. It is intended this will enhance the current evidence base in terms of understanding aspiration-raising with adults.

A key outcome will be the stimulus provided to universities to include credibly evaluated outreach with adults in Access Agreements. This will result in a fuller and more inclusive interpretation of widening participation in England.

Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education at OFFA, said: "Adult learners enrich university communities, but there are still far too few of them. We urgently need to understand more about the specific challenges they face, and how best to attract and support them into higher education.

"This project will support universities and colleges to find out what works best for adult learners in their contexts, ensuring that the investment they make through their access agreements is having real impact."

The project is for six months until the end of March 2017.

Further information

The Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities

The Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities has been running at the University of Bristol since 2013 and each year recruits 30 students who wish to progress to a degree but may not have followed a conventional route into higher education.

The programme introduces a wide range of subjects as well as tailored study skills. Students on the programme range in age from 18 to over 70 and are from an exceptionally wide range of educational, social and ethnic backgrounds. The majority live in the Bristol area, and over 90 per cent did not have A-Levels when starting the course. So far, 52 students have progressed to a degree at the University of Bristol, while six have gone on to degrees at other universities.

The first cohort of the Foundation Year collaborated with local filmmakers from Calling the Shots, to make a film about their experiences on the course called 'We Did This'.

Access to Bristol

Among the other activities directed at mature students, Access to Bristol is the University's largest outreach programme and gives 600 students from local schools and colleges an opportunity to taste university teaching over a sustained period. It's designed to inspire participants to study at the University of Bristol and gives them access to the University's world-class teaching staff and facilities. In September 2016, 12 mature students who had taken part in Access to Bristol enrolled in undergraduate degrees at the University.

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