Supporting adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education

Fowle, Wendy (2018). Supporting adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 20(3) pp. 90–108.



This paper presents the work in progress of a professional doctorate in education (EdD) and is being published now, at a time when government priorities around widening access and participation to higher education (HE) in England are increasingly requiring HE providers to prioritise supporting mature1 students into and through HE. The Office for Students (OFS), a newly formed regulatory body for HE in England, positions adult learners within five priority areas for which HE providers should allocate resources to enable access and success in HE. This research contributes to these requirements through recommendations around the adult learner student voice and better (evidence-informed) understanding of the potential barriers they face, set within the context of a part-time distance-learning institution. Despite literature that suggests adult learners are not a homogeneous group (Waller, 2006; Pearce, 2017), many initiatives designed to support adult learners into HE focus upon programmes to develop confidence in academic ability and study skills, suggesting a 'one size fits all' approach. This research sought to explore this heterogeneity further as a first step to unpicking how policy makers and HE providers approach the support they offer to adult learners. The research was specifically focused on adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. One-to-one telephone interviews were undertaken with 12 students who had studied the institution's Access2 programme prior to embarking on a full degree. The student sample was filtered to present the most disadvantaged students (those from POLAR33 quintiles 1 and 2) with no previous HE experience and low previous educational qualifications, who had received a full fee waiver for the Access programme. Vignettes were used to aid the discussion, helping to overcome some of the ethical challenges that were raised through the institution's research approvals process. The interviews were transcribed and analysed using thematic analysis in NVivo. This paper presents some of the findings of the research, which reflect a life-history methodological approach with a view to informing current and future practice to support mature students in HE.

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