Equity Groups: Mature Age Students

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

The literature on mature age students in higher education (HE) focuses on the experiences of mature age students navigating through university, the factors that influence their experiences, and issues that hinder their successful educational outcomes. Consequently, the literature offers recommendations to improve the experiences and educational outcomes of mature age students in higher education. Findings from Bowl’s (2010) study, which explored the barriers impeding the successful transition of mature age students in HE via three case studies, suggest that there are several factors that significantly impact the transition of this equity group in HE. These include insufficient funding, lack of childcare, difficulties encountered with the benefits system, and the lack of response of institutions towards their needs (Bowl, 2010). Similarly, in their work on the support provided for mature students from low SES backgrounds, Tones, Fraser, Elder and White (2009) discovered that barriers which hinder the participation of these students in HE include conflicting responsibilities and difficulties in adjusting to university life. In addition, findings from their study also suggest a critical lack of awareness on the support available, and uncertainty on ways to access this support, as mentioned by 76% of low SES students in the study, which often prevents them from accessing the support services at university (Tones et al., 2009). The authors therefore suggest the implementation of more social events for mature age students at university, to enable them to cope better with adjusting to university life, as well as a greater flexibility in course delivery, to accommodate the varying responsibilities of these students. In addition, Shaw’s (2014) study investigating the problems faced by part-time mature age students at university highlights the financial burden faced by these students due to their increasing student loans and debts. Findings from his study, which investigated the problems of 212 students at one university and four FE colleges,  suggest that confusion about fees, debt aversion and a lack of concern for part-time students in HE inhibit the government advocacy for life-long learning (Shaw, 2014). The study also highlights gendered differences in the financial burdens faced, where “so many of the female respondents [compared with none of the male participants] showed in considering higher education for themselves in a situation where they would be inflicting, in their view, a burden of debt on their whole family, and possibly jeopardising their children’s opportunities to go to college or university” (p.848–9).

On the other hand, Mallman and Lee (2017) investigate the experiences of young mature age (YMA) students at university, through a student led ethnography with 101 participants. Findings from their study suggest that YMA learners often felt like the ‘odd-one-out’ (p. 517), as they had difficulties relating to both school-leavers and mature-age students at university. The students therefore faced barriers in establishing social connections with other groups of students in their HE institutions, which hindered their full participation at university (Mallman & Lee, 2017). The authors therefore argue the crucial need to ‘expand and complexify’ student categories in HE to support this distinct cohort of older learners (Mallman & Lee, 2017). Similarly, Moreau and Kerner (2015) problematise the categorisation of mature age students in HE, with a focus on the conflation of student parents and mature age students. Findings from their study suggest that 9 out of 10 universities investigated in the study did not collect information on student parents, causing them to be ‘largely invisible’ (Moreau & Kerner, p. 216) in HE institutions. As a result, the participation of student parents in HE is often impeded due to the lack of support in managing significant challenges such as time constraints, health problems (sleep deprivation), emotional issues including guilt, depression and feelings of ‘missing out’ or ‘not fitting in’ and financial difficulties (Moreau & Kerner, 2015). Waller (2006) also argues against the simplistic representations of mature age students in HE, contending that ‘mature students en masse are not the homogenous group portrayed in much early research’ (p. 126). Waller (2006) further highlights the diversity of the mature age student cohort, by asserting they cannot be ‘satisfactorily further divided into a series of distinct categories or sub-groups’ (p. 126).

Besides the barriers faced by mature age students in HE, the literature also highlights factors that facilitate their successful participation and consequent educational outcomes. Heagney & Benson (2017) conducted an in-depth case study with 11 mature age students to identify how mature age students succeed in Australian HE and the consequent implications for institutional support. The key factor factors identified to facilitate students’ participation include support of family and friends, which was cited by participants as ‘paramount’ in providing financial, emotional and childcare or housework support (Heagney & Benson, 2017). In addition, academic support, regular and prompt feedback, curriculum design and as well as institutional support, especially the flexibility to switch from full to part time mode of study were also cited as factors influencing the success of mature age students at university (Heagney & Benson, 2017). However, participants cited the limitations of academic support in terms of access, especially for remote or off-campus students (Heagney & Benson, 2017). The authors thus offered recommendations from Benson et al.’s (2013) study to enhance the experience of mature age students in HE, and their consequent educational outcomes. These include facilitating peer interaction and practical learning, offering constant feedback and encouragement, allowing for flexibility, and promoting ‘student-centred access to information and services’ (p. 227). Apart from that, Pearce and Brown’s (2011) study explores the cultural and pedagogical conditions which promote the engagement of 16 mature-age students in a regional university. Findings from the study highlight the significance of relational pedagogy which emphasises relationship building, to promote student learning, especially for mature age students who face significant cultural and economic issues, and have previously felt marginalised in HE institutions (Pearce & Brown, 2011). O’Shea (2016) also investigates the knowledge and skills facilitating the transition of first-in-family mature age learners to university. Findings from O’Shea’s (2016) study highlighted the importance of capital, including aspirational, social and familial capital in assisting student transition. However, the findings also highlight the lack of experiential capital among the students, which impedes their transition process (O’Shea, 2016). O’Shea (2016) thus asserts the importance of targeted support and outreach programs to support the transition of first in family mature age students to university.

The literature on mature age students and equity in HE therefore points towards socio-economic, relational and institutional factors that could either promote or impede the full participation of mature age students in HE, and their attainment of successful educational outcomes.

Summary by Anna Xavier



Bowl, M. (2010). Experiencing the barriers: non-traditional students entering higher education, Research Papers in Education, 16(2), 141–160.

Heagney, M. & Benson, R. (2017). How mature-age students succeed in higher education: implications for institutional support, Journal of Educational Policy and Management, 39(3), 216–234.

Mallman, M. & Lee, H. (2017). Isolated learners: young mature-age students, university culture, and desire for academic sociality, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 36(5), 512–525.

Moreau, M.P. & Kerner, C. (2015). Care in academia: an exploration of student parents’ experiences, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(2), 215–233.

O’Shea, S. (2016). Navigating the knowledge sets of older learners: Exploring the capitals of first-in-family mature age students, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 18(3), 34–54.

Pearce, J. & Down, B. (2011). Relational pedagogy for student engagement and success at university, The Australian Educational Researcher, 38(4), 483–494.

Shaw, A. (2014). Examining the potential impact of full tuition fees on mature part-time students in English higher education, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 38(6), 838–850.

Tones, M.; Fraser, J.; Elder, R.; & White, K. (2009). Supporting mature-aged students from a low socioeconomic background, Higher Education, 58, 505–529.

Waller, R. (2006). ‘I don’t feel like ‘a student’, I feel like ‘me’!’: the oversimplification of mature learners’ experience(s), Research in PostCompulsory Education, 11(1), 115–130.

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.